Being with Smart People

I graduated from college in 1981 and I’ve never gotten over it.

I loved being in college.  And recently I’ve tried to think about why.  A big part of it was the boost to my ego (it’s nice when people think you’re smart).  But looking back, I think a larger part of it is made up of being with smart people.

Let me ‘splain.

When you’re in college (or when I was in college) it cost very little (as I think I’ve pointed out here before, tuition was around $900/year) and people did not come to prepare for careers.  At least, most of the people I knew didn’t have career plans.  I suppose that may have been different for some:  chemistry students were pre-med, and so had life plans worked out.

But in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) there were lots of majors in political science, history, philosophy, sociology (like me), and so on.  And we didn’t think of ourselves in terms of careers.  I remember vividly my visceral reaction to a “practical sociology” lobbying effort.  We didn’t need no steekin’ practicality.  And why would we?  The economy was in bad shape, but we had a place.  We were learning.

And that’s what I mean by smart people.  People who were there for the sake of learning new things, but not necessarily things that they would ever use.  Knowledge, quite literally, for the sake of knowledge.  I mean, how often does someone ask you who Jeremy Bentham was?  I wrote a major history paper on him, encountered him in philosophy and criminology courses as well.  The University had two copies of his monumental multi-volume Worksoriginal copies, published through 1843.  Knowledge for knowledge’s own sake.

I felt like the synthesist in Stand on Zanzibar, steeping in a sea of information.

It doesn’t last.  Life, career, the need to eat, it all gets in the way.

After I left college, I spent almost ten years being a graduate student, but it wasn’t the same.  Graduate school is aimed at a career (however esoteric that career may appear) and consequently doesn’t allow you to immerse yourself in the same way (though I tried).  I worked for a long time, and then went to law school.  Same story.  There’s a goal.  When you’re an undergraduate, you have the chance to really be a student, without a goal.

That’s not to say that the people in these “higher” institutions aren’t smart.  Because they are!  But they’re not smart people in the same way.  They’ve narrowed their focus, and don’t spend as much time dipping into what we might call “non-esoteric-but-still-useless” knowledge as they used to.  And that’s a shame.  But it’s the way it is.

At the end of The Rose, Bette Middler’s character asks her audience “Where’re you going?  Where’re y’all going?”

Being a student is not having an answer to that question–and not having to answer it.


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