Incoming undergraduates have a systematically biased expectation of what the next four years of their lives will bring. Part F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Princeton, part “Animal House,” they prepare for grand endeavors and adventure and brilliant hijinks to define their brief excursion into academia. In turn, they find that college tends to be a lot like those portions of life that precede and follow it. Noteworthy for nothing intrinsic to the college experience, but because you happen to be at the brief moment in your life where freedom retains its novelty and has yet to become a burden.
These inflated illusions are not really their fault. How could they expect anything less when they are bombarded with romantic notions about what college represented to previous generations? Baby boomers are particularly egregious offenders, explaining to everyone who cares to listen how they liberated the oppressed peoples of the world, ended war and followed the Doors up and down the West Coast all in four years between taking classes for their English degrees. During my pre-college life, college was described to me as everything from Disneyland with books to Plato’s academy. Either way it sounded great and I obligingly, although with no real choice in the matter, signed up.
Compared to these embellished memories, our four years are feeble. While puffery on the part of our elders explains some of the shortfall, there are more fundamental explanations at hand. College has undergone a tremendous transformation in the past 30 years. It is no longer the great egalitarian arena of the G.I. Bill or the great status symbol of the Gentlemen’s C. For most, it has become a way station to grind out four years of your life before moving on to something eminently practical. Deprived of its urgency, catatonic students muddle through their days. Students disappear from classes, show up drunk, ignore the reading and retreat to their lonely fortresses. All of this is accepted with a defeatist shrug on the part of faculty, administrators and most grimly of all, their fellow students. The left tail of the normal distribution doing what it is expected to do.
Over the next three weeks we seniors will endure all varieties of washed-out reminiscences of halcyon days. Here is mine.
When I was a freshman, I sincerely believed that you either wrote for the Daily or you sat around your dorm room drinking beer idly wasting time. You either contribute to society or you are a social misfit. From my limited observations of those students who surrounded me in class and in the dorms, this belief made a lot of sense. Before I threw myself into the Daily, I was a confused freshman, profoundly disappointed by what surrounded him. The Daily saved me from all that. The people there showed me that you could produce something beautiful with dedication and grit.
With time I have realized that the choice between the Daily and everything else wasn’t as stark as I once imagined. Students contribute to the intellectual and social life of the University in unique ways, and my belief in the innate superiority of the Daily over all other forms of involvement bespoke an intolerable arrogance on my behalf. But like many ideas that don’t withstand the scrutiny of time, there was a kernel of truth to it.
The last columns of Daily writers of yore have typically been a place to deposit homespun wisdom about the ineffable joy of the journalist’s life, ask existential questions and attempt to impose order and logic on a four-year expanse of time marked mostly by utter randomness. I thank all of you for inspiring me with your struggles to make something permanent out of our moment on this campus, filling up the bound volumes with your thoughts. We weren’t always right, but we approached everything we did with the gravity it deserved.
To everyone who gave up along the way, I’ll channel Kafka. The Czech writer concluded his brief meditation “The Passenger” by staring at a woman on a trolley car and asking, “I wondered back then: How come she’s not astonished at herself, how come she keeps her mouth shut and says nothing along those lines?”
This is Peskowitz’s last column for the Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.