When I graduated from college, I found a job in Manhattan and a basement apartment in Brooklyn, and I was sure I was done with school forever. But what I did at that job, and at the next one, was write research papers, a skill I had been honing in school since the first grade. And during those postcollegiate years, every September I felt a powerful urge to go to a room smelling of dusty wood and figure out something complicated in the company of similarly motivated others while rain beat against the windows. With the help of New York’s old-fashioned taverns, which resemble lecture halls or libraries if you squint a little, I held the urge at bay for a couple of years.
Finally, I conducted a thought experiment. What would I do with my life if I miraculously had plenty of money and could just do whatever I wanted? The answer was: write, read, and be around people who value truth, beauty, and a well-crafted argument. Since I did have to make a living, I set about getting into the profession that best answered that description. So, back to school — and back to school every September since then.
On Tuesday I will report for the first day of what I like to think of as 41st grade. The return to school is different each time, and it’s also always the same in the way that matters most. Deep down, beneath the novelty of new faces and the latest developments in what income inequality and misspent money and the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people and literal-minded notions of vocational training are doing to American education, school is still fundamentally about knowledge with consequences.
I’m always acutely reminded of this sameness-in-difference when I meet my undergraduate classes for the first time. Like many academics of my generation, I look at the students in my classroom and see a club that the 18-year-old me, somehow transported to the present day, wouldn’t have a prayer of being invited to join. My classes are packed with young adults who aced childhood and adolescence, getting excellent grades while compiling the obligatory brag lists of achievements. By today’s standards, my high school friends and I were amateurs who had barely anything to put on our college applications — unless contemplating the semiotics of those flying elephants on Yes album covers counts as an extracurricular activity.
It’s a lot harder to get in to college than it used to be, and the process has become pathologically consumerized, professionalized, and deeply perverse. From my perspective, putting ambitious young people in a position where they feel obliged to organize their lives around this parody of choice and competition feels like a titanic waste of effort, resources, and inspiration that would be better devoted to actual study. Surprisingly little of what it takes to get in to college translates into what it takes to get the most out of it. While today’s students are unquestionably much better at the admissions game than my contemporaries, once they actually show up in my classroom they’re no better (and no worse) as students. They are probably on the whole more consistent and dutiful students than we were, but that advantage is typically offset by more nonacademic activities; also, getting used to constant electronic distractions significantly undermines one’s capacity to concentrate on a book, so even some of the strongest students in my classes are more intimidated by big novels than they should be.
And what we do in the classroom once they finally get there hasn’t really changed that much. Nor should it. A good literature class, the kind that will equip you for life in all sorts of ways you can’t possibly predict at the time, deals in sharp thinking but doesn’t need to be on the cutting edge of anything — not technology, not research in the discipline, certainly not the job market. It’s a place to refine your ability to construct a reasoned analytical argument using language, an important part of what makes you employable or worth talking to — or human at all, for that matter. That hasn’t changed, either.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’