“Aristoteles” (1811) by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882)
According to Aristotle the young, “are fond of laughter, and therefore witty; for wit is cultured insolence.” He goes on: “In their actions, [the young] prefer the noble to the useful; their life is guided by their character rather than by calculation, for the latter aims at the useful, virtue at the noble. At this age more than any other they are fond of their friends and companions because they take pleasure in living in company and as yet judge nothing by expediency, not even their friends.” (Rhetoric, book 2, chapter 12)
Worry less about the useful and the expedient. Have more fun.
For the past several years we have been telling each other to adjust (expectations, assumptions), to be patient (with others and ourselves), to make the best of it and get used to a new normal. I have given a lot of this advice, both in person and in my missives to you.
We’ve been treating the pandemic like Gilligan’s Island, with Dr. Fauci in the role of the Professor. We keep coming up with “this is just like normal life, but with coconuts…” schemes, with predictable results. The uplifting message from the Gilligan’s Island Christmas episode is that at least no one died at sea and they got stranded on an island with food. True, but “it could be worse” wears thin pretty quickly. It’s time to enjoy living on the island.
One problem is that GW (and universities around the country) try to recreate for you something that never was. College, we tell you, is an experience. It’s not just buildings, exams, networking, and invoices; college is an idea that we perform. It’s a picture of someone reading a book under a tree, rapt students in a lecture hall listening to a brilliant scholar, and heated classroom discussions. Maybe there’s a winning team playing in front of fans wearing face paint. In this college everyone has done the reading and no one is checking their phone. Every moment is a memory to be cherished and reminisced about at college reunions.
We say “college is supposed to be…” selectively remembering our own experiences and imposing those soft-focus visions on you. That you don’t get to live our idealized memories (which themselves always fell short) is seen as failure. To compensate for this failure we come up with endless patches and work-arounds, jerry-rigging our glory days (or what we remember our glory days to have been, as seen through yearbook pictures and letters we kept from the one who broke our heart) onto your lives. The Perfect College Experience is always one event, lecture, or high jink away. Roland Barthes could have had a side hustle writing university recruiting brochures.
We’re the parents who promised to take you to Disneyland, but because of circumstances beyond our control could only afford knock-off mouse ears and a trip to the travelling carnival in the parking lot of the local abandoned shopping plaza, followed by binge-watching the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the rest of the Disney movies based on Disney rides (rides which have be updated to match the movies of themselves – somewhere Jean Baudrillard is throwing in the towel).
No wonder we’re all stressed to the gills. On top of exams, networking, invoices, and social weirdness, college was always going to fall short of the sizzle reel.
COVID didn’t change this. As with so many other things, COVID made obvious that which was already there. COVID stopped the ride and turned on all the lights, leaving us to stare at the sputtering smoke machines and failing gears that make the animatronics of college work. In the face of this, colleges aren’t laughing along with a joke revealed. Instead we’re doubling down on the illusion. We’re finding ways to imitate the fake fog that adds ambiance and an odd smell while it hides the machinery.
Here’s my new advice: have fun. Not “this will be just like before the pandemic but on Zoom!” fun, or “it is what it is” fun (what a stupid phrase – of course it is what it is, what else would it be?) but actual fun. Foster cultured insolence.
Stop worrying about missing all the things we told you we had (or wished we had). Stop pretending masks and Zoom are just like before but without faces or three dimensions. Start creating your own unrealistic expectations for your children and tales you’ll tell at reunions. Make time for silliness between classes, exams, networking, and bills. Fall in and out of love. Take a class because it sounds interesting not because it might some day be useful. Audition. Try and fail and try again. Take time to be ridiculous. Enjoy GW in the spring of 2022.
Be safe, COVID is a big deal. Don’t do anything illegal or too stupid. Do the reading and don’t check your phone in class. And have fun.
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