I was visiting – and a fine visit it was – as a member of the English Department’s “Distinguished Alumni Board.” I don’t feel very distinguished, I confess, tho visiting campus at length for the first time in two decades or so made me feel quite valetudinarian. That was what was striking. Old Alma Mater’s campus (see above the English Department’s former home building, where I spent hundreds of hours of classes) is incomparably prettier than Our Fair University where I now labor, and it’s been expanded remarkably: lots of new buildings, all more or less attractive, all more or less constructed in harmony with the dozens of university Gothic edifices already in place. So it hasn’t really changed much. I walked around on the paths I walked at 19 or 20, I visited the campus bookstore to find that they still specialized pretty much in t-shirts and hoodies rather than books, even the hotel where I was staying seemed to be hosting the same crowds of drunken students in their nightclub. (It’s now a Holiday Inn, tho it was a Marriott back then.)
And amid the clouds of garden-variety nostalgia, I found myself remembering not merely the good things – the great courses, the late-night sessions of reading and talking, the dancing, the girlfriends, the house parties with their student bands – but the frequent loneliness, the grinding boredom of so much of the time: the desperate need to find something to do when the books got just too oppressive. And I felt really, deeply old – even tho by any objective standard I’m still roughly middle-aged. It’s that sense (& I have no intention of dwelling on such a clichéd topic) of one’s youth as a time of endless opportunities, of open-ended choices and options. Hey, I’m more than happy with the path I’ve taken, & wouldn’t swap it for anything; but there’s something about being a 20-year-old with only vague ideas of the future that, at least in retrospect, is very exhilarating.
The “Distinguished Alumni Board” held a series of business meetings, and then served as hosts for a series of career workshops for English majors – résumé critiques, mock interviews, little round-table discussions of what these young people wanted to do with their lives. I fear I might have scared a handful of young folks away from graduate school in English (the terms “Ponzi scheme” and “astronomical odds” figured in my conversation). I was, you see, the academic “ringer” of the board – the one person who’d gone on the grad school in literature & actually made a success of it. And heaven knows, given the restructuring of the academy and the pyramid scheme of the academic labor force these days, I’m not recommending that path to anyone else.
The other alumni present were to a person personable, successful, and very nice, and almost without exception quite well to do. I suppose what stuck in my craw, more violently as the weekend proceeded, was the continual invocation of the “real world” – you know, that thing you enter once you graduate from college. By the final event, I found myself wincing every time I heard the phrase uttered, especially when it was coupled with a hopeful evocation of how well-prepared these young English majors were to “use” their “language skills” to get ahead in this “real world.” I’m a slow study with words, so I didn’t get around to formulating the thoughts swirling in my head until late Saturday night, but here’s what I would have said if I’d had Wilfrid Laurier’s famed silver tongue:
This weekend the other members of the Distinguished Alumni Board, all successful, generous, and remarkably nice people, have given you a good deal of very sound advice about making your way in the “real world” – the world after graduation. I wouldn’t subtract a word from any of the useful things they said. But I’d just like you to take a moment for a thought experiment: What if the world you’re living in now – the world of the English major, where the most important things are beautiful, well-crafted, exploratory monuments of language; where you expose yourselves to and participate in wonderful intensities of emotional depth, of social critique, of aesthetic experience; where you devote yourself, singly and in conjunction with your colleagues, to open-ended, sensibility-expanding intellectual exploration – what if that world’s just as “real” as the world in which your command of language all too often becomes a tool for selling things – yourself included? What if it’s realer? What if this is the real world, and the “real world” of “getting and spending” is just the Matrix?That was my last word – and I wish I'd actually said it.
Just a thought experiment – maybe. But if you value the kind of intellectual labor, emotional intensity, and aesthetic joy you find in the work you’ve done in the Department of English, and if you find the “real world” failing to live up to the possibilities of the “utopia” you’ve inhabited over the last few years, then don’t be afraid to try to change that “real” world, to make its reality something closer to the possibilities you’ve seen here.