Old Man on Campus

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, October 23, 2005

I miss college at this time of year -- something about the falling leaves makes me long for the parties at Ivy Club, the bull sessions with brilliant professors, the thrilling victories on the gridiron and the squash court, the sublime nocturnal encounters with brainy and lubricious beauties, and all the other things that happened only in my wildest and most pathetic fantasies.

It's sad that society lets only college students go to college. That's so narrow-minded, like saying that only Air Force pilots can fly fighter jets, or only trained doctors can perform open-heart surgery. College, like youth, is wasted on the young.

There is something intoxicating about wandering the halls of academe in the presence of so much genius and erudition. That something is, specifically, beer, but there's also the excitement of being around professional scholars, some of whom don't even have an ax to grind or a fringe theory with which to bludgeon their hapless students. College is a time for expanding one's horizons, for sampling the Great Ideas of civ-ilization, all the while hoping that an understanding of Plato and Dante and Montaigne will not hurt one's chances of someday managing a hedge fund.

I feel bad that I have forgotten so much of what I learned in college, and I feel worse that so much of it was never true in the first place. We were led to believe that someday computers would be so advanced they'd be as big as, for example, the Pentagon. We learned that the people who talked about defeating the Soviet Union and rolling back communism were goggle-eyed lunatics, possibly even Republicans. We learned about all the -isms, such as feminism, cubism, postmodernism, pre-postmodernism, anarcho-syndicalism, and the synthesis of all the above -- what is known as ismism.

A few years ago, I finagled my way back to college. I nabbed a teaching gig for a few months at Princeton and took a class on the side. An esteemed English professor, Will Howarth, let me sit in on his seminar, "American Literature Before 1825," words that previously I would have considered an oxymoron. The ingenious Howarth eschewed the normal seminar room and instead commandeered a redoubt on the second floor of Firestone Library. Every week, we handled rare books and manuscripts: an early edition of Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative; a map by Henry Hudson; an original copy of Poor Richard's Almanack; a series of captain's logs from a slave trading ship. We examined an Aztec map drawn centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. We studied a lost Mayan language written on a conch shell.

The students in the seminar and in my own writing class were remarkably smart and engaged. They radiated health and industry and community spirit. I always had the sense that, if I turned my back on them for two minutes, they'd build a house for a poor person.

One night that fall I stumbled across a couple of my students smoking cigarettes. I was stunned. These were our future leaders! One of the smokers suggested to the other that they form a smoking and drinking society. It was perfect: They'd take their bad behavior and make a club of it. Organize the vice.

Students today are better than students of my era. It's an inexorable historical trend. Henry Adams a century ago predicted the coming of "the new American -- the child of incalculable coal power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy, as well as of new forces yet undetermined." Such a person would be "a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature." And this was before they had Google!

The seminar was a humble gathering: Just 10 students, including me. Howarth used to get 35 or so. Perhaps the three-hour format was too daunting. But more likely, "American Literature Before 1825" lacks sex appeal, each word more numbing than the previous. When you go back far enough in time, events suffer from a kind of "pastness," and they can seem irrelevant and musty. To appreciate history it helps to get old. You see the texture of time. You can feel it in your brittle bones. You realize the past -- pick any date -- wasn't really that long ago.

Every so often I'll have that generic anxiety dream in which I've got a term paper due, and I've done none of the reading, and I know I'll be exposed as a fraud, as someone who should not be a college student but a pizza deliverer. And then I'll wake up and discover that I've just lost 25 years of my life and am careering into middle age. And I think, I wish I were a kid with a term paper due.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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