I got a copy of Owen Johnson’s classic novel “Stover at Yale“ for Christmas. The university was different in 1901 (for one thing, the football team relied more on their rushing game), but some things were pretty much the same.
A sophomore teaches the freshman protagonist a lesson:
“No fooling around women; that isn’t done here — that will queer you absolutely.”
The protagonist is invited to a courtship dinner:
“Confound Bob Story! Why the deuce did he get me into this? I loathe females.”
The protagonist, now a junior, meets an adoring freshman in his entryway:
“Why do you wear pink pajamas?”
The little freshman, face-to-face with his first great emotion, blurted out: “Don’t you like them, sir?”
“Keep them on,” said Stover.
Later, the adoring freshman (Wookey) gets life advice from Stover and another drunken junior. At the end of the night:
“The two took solemn hold of each other’s hands and rolled over on the cushions. Wookey, in the pink pajamas, covered them with a rug, and stole out, like a thief, carrying away a secret.”
Junior Stover chooses senior roommates:
“The four of us are all different enough to make just the combination we need. I’m tired of bunking alone. I want to rub up against someone else.”
1 in 4, maybe more, since 1901.
On a serious note: I don’t recommend the book overall, since it doesn’t correspond to anyone’s modern college experience and is written in prose as plodding and straightforward as college football at the turn of the century, but there was one section that got me worked up:
The most literary student at Yale, in a novel that mostly ignores the educational experience, challenges his friends to name a single Russian composer, or tell him anything about modern art. When they fail, he excoriates Yale for failing to teach them well and them for failing to learn past what Yale taught them. He finishes his impassioned lecture on the use of a multifaceted education with some useful words on secret societies:
“When a boy comes here to Yale, or any other American college, and gets the flummery in his system — surrenders to it — so that he trembles in the shadow of a tomblike building, doesn’t dare to look at a [secret society pin] that stares him in the face, is afraid to pronounce the holy sacred names; when he’s got to that point he has ceased to think, and no amount of college life is going to revive him.”
Few modern Yalies prioritize society life above all else, but the “flummery” which so enrages Brockhurst could also be seen as an old incarnation of modern I-banking fever—that too many students go straight to Wall Street or some other street full of money.
I’m as eager to win a high-paying job as most people, and most of them are in finance and other move-the-money-around businesses these days, but it seems as though the fever to enter those kinds of institutions—college as the collection of a 3.9 GPA and some obscure knowledge on the workings of tiny molecules or market fluctuations, that one may tremble in the face of job interviews before winning a six-figure salary—can obscure other forms of searching.
This is all speculation, but I wonder: how many students with a non-science degree really understand evolution, or the theory of global climate change, to the extent that they can argue for their truth from scientific knowledge rather than simple authority? (Not many, argues Paul Bloom—and I fear he’s right).
How many non-computer scientists have an inkling of how their laptops work? Who among us will graduate having come to disagree with any of the political or moral positions we brought in? To what extent, in an average week, do we wind up discussing matters outside the job search and our workloads and settle instead on what we are learning, and what kind of change we wish to effect in the world?
Every student’s experience is different, of course. But I often find myself wondering whether my priorities are, or have ever been, straight, and the extent to which student culture (not Yale itself—the college provides everything it should to aid students in the pursuit of intellectual fulfillment) encourages the analysis of one’s priorities.
Then again, this may all just be an artifact of paging through the select list of summer opportunities that will leave me richer rather than poorer. Feel free to disagree.
Note: Stover at Yale is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free here.
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