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 CollegeFoster-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.


Anonymous said…
i agree!
Anti-Dada said…
I think I am one of the rare exceptions to the rule, but I also think I was one of the rare students who knew--even in high school--that adult resembled slavery. I got lucky coming of age as an adult at the dawn of the Internet's boom in popularity coinciding with the downsizing of publishing companies so I was able to work at home, travel, write, paint, and live a more refined adult college life outside of school. But if I hadn't been attentive to the slack-jawed beaten-down morales of adults who had given up on everything interesting and worthwhile about life I may not have held out for a type of work that was intellectually invigorating, allowed me the flexibility to work when I wanted, and paid enough (up to the late 2000s anyway) to work only about nine months a year while still making good middle class money. Timing and foresight. Other than the relatively few exceptions like mine I think you're right. The comedian Louis C.K. made the observation that young people bitch and moan about working what he called shit jobs at places like rental car agencies. He said they'd sigh and grumble if he asked too many questions, if they actually had to WORK. Then he said, "You're 21 years old, you've lived two decades without earning a thing, you were fed, you had a home, computers, ipods, cell phones, and you think life is all about you and its unfair that you have to put forth effort to receiv ANYTHING! Not only that if it isn't the best thing then its shit. Well, I got news for you: you're lucky to have even that shit job because you have ZERO skills, no life experience, nothing. You're 21 and you've contributed nothing to the world, nothing. Youve just been sucking up resources, expecting more and more for nothing in return, and you think you're special and the world owes you something. And that's why they don't work hard and why they think working at a car rental agency is beneath them. They don't know shit about how the world works and that's why they wasted the easiest years of their lives complaining that their phones didn't have any good apps."
Anti-Dada said…
I agree with you about the "real life" comment. I think a better description would be "work life" (for students, not staff or faculty). But even that's off because studying and writing and researching and speeches and presentations are work. No the best description is "slave life" as in, "Until you get out of school and have to obey and work as slave then you don't know nothing'." Why anyone would wear slavery as a badge of honor is beyond me. "Wait until life sucks for you as much ad it does for me, then you'll see." See what? That I should have become a professional student no matter how poor? (Yes)
Professor Quest said…
I often say to my son that you don't get to make a lot of choices when you're a kid, but here's the thing: you don't get to make all that many more when you're an adult . You do, however, get to choose the meaning of your life. That's the point basically of Foster-Wallace's address. He argues that a good liberal arts education ought to make it really clear to us that how we decide to construct meaning is a choice. He writes, "if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."
Anti-Dada said…
That there sounds like wisdom to me. I think DFW is right. I also believe the only education that can rightfully be called an education is a liberal arts education. Everything else is training ... or indoctrination.

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