B.C. and A.D.
A colleague stopped by this morning and told me that his son, a recent grad, had come home over the weekend filled with some post-graduation blues. I know this young man only slightly (mostly from his father's intermittent updates), but I can certainly empathize with his feelings about his new grind. Like a lot of recent grads, he may just now be noticing that there's a difference between the intensity and drama of college and 'real life' (a phrase I very much detest).
Indeed, the term real life is almost always used to contrast serious, everyday work with the slap-and tickle un-seriousness of academic life. My own take is that a great deal of so-called real life is filled with boredom, empty routine and petty annoyance, a point David Foster-Wallace made several years ago in his graduation address at Kenyon College. Foster-Wallace evoked the future for the happy grads:
...let's say it's an average adult day and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white collar college-graduate job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want to do is go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all over again. But then you remember that there's no food at home--you haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job--and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket.
It's the end of the day and the traffic is very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store is hideously, fluorescently lit and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be... [but] eventually you get your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end of the day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long. Which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take out your fury on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness...
Well, you get the idea. This is what a lot of real life is. Day-in, day-out, and year after year. It certainly lacks the youthful drama and intensity (not to mention the dating prospects) found in the undergraduate years my students can’t wait to put behind them. What’s their bloody hurry, I wonder. Sure, tuition is expensive and college has its own ritualized annoyances, but come on. The real world isn't going anywhere and much of it won't really seem like living.
Ask middle-aged people with degrees to compare their real life to their undergrad years, and it's real life that will suffer by comparison. Most would relish the chance to go back to college. Maybe this time they would appreciate what a gift it is to be in a place where people are asked to think and wrestle with ideas, to live once again with a 21-year-old's sense of future possible selves. I don't know. Maybe you can't really appreciate what it means to have a world all before you until you have "with wand'ring steps and slow" made your solitary way out of Eden. Even I have caught myself thinking that I would love to go back to school if I ever get done with this teaching gig.
There’s an old academic joke that life can be divided into two parts: B.C. and A.D. (i.e., before commencement and all downhill).
Funny but also a little true.