Nostalgia, Fantasy and Telling the Truth

Maybe it goes without saying that the vague sense of longing that most of us experience from time to time is for a home that never really existed. We live with echoes of pleasures and pains from gifts and wounds that we never received, at least not as we remember. It is both poignant and silly — the stuff of tragedy and comedy — that we become so intimately bound to pasts that never were. How much of my own longing and grumpiness about higher ed is based on an idealized past that never really was?

For those who, like me, earned public institution degrees in the 80s and 90s, and have since taught mostly at regional public institutions, the ivy threaded, romantic idea of college life has always been mostly fantasy. While I can actually recall intellectual epiphanies on the grassy quad, and the occasional fire-eyed professor, the bigger picture is more anodyne. There were, for example, buckets of beer, mind-numbing part-time jobs, and more than a few barely-competent teaching assistants. Grad school was an improvement, as was my post-doc at a more elite east coast university, but The Dead Poet’s Society it was not.

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Whatever hallowed illusions about undergrad life I still harbor were born as much from wishful thinking as actual experience. This vague longing I’ve felt, then, this irritating sense of mismatch between my experience of higher ed and what “should be,” is grounded partly in fantasy. And the still larger truth of the falsely rosy picture of higher ed becomes even more obvious after a quick peek at, say, the early days of Harvard Medical School, a grisly, disorganized affair. It turns out that histories of U.S. education are a powerful antidote to the most sentimental fits of nostalgia.

Paradoxically, I find that I’m now best able to resist my tendency to rail against the current state of higher ed when I’m at my most nostalgic. Then I can see that at least some of my resistance — to online teaching, “flipped” classrooms, and the like — reflects my middle-aged crankiness: Students today! Why aren’t they more like we were? The truth, though, is that they are a lot like I was, and in some remarkably annoying and admirable respects. Though I don’t entirely trust online education, nor do I have full confidence in my aversion to it. Of course there are grave problems with higher ed and we may well be in the midst of a genuine crisis, one swirling with questions about its affordability, accessibility, and status as a public good. But this incipient catastrophe is awful enough without our piling on false, sweetly scented memories.

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With this in mind, I try to focus my complaints about higher ed on actual problems and losses, instead of imagined ones. Although this requires an ongoing, ruthless level of self-scrutiny that I’m not entirely capable of, I’m motivated by the fact that the potential rewards extend well beyond higher ed. It is possible, after all, to live the whole of one’s life in worshipful service to bygone pain and resentments. And, of course, the tragedy here has much less to do with the original wound than with one’s dedication to suffering over what are, effectively, mere memories. Obviously not all new opportunities should be embraced, and even the best ones promise disappointment as well as delight. But at least the pain will be honestly earned, the price of actually engaging with contemporary life, rather than making excuses to avoid it in favor of what never was.

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