Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Was there ever a time of idealism in college?

Dean Dad has an interesting post about artists and the advice being given to them:
But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”
He continues:
What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers. 
In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.
But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.
Dean Dad's take on this is interesting, for he sees it as a generational issue, whereas I see it as a class issue.

Although I went to college in a time that was supposed to be somewhat idealistic, the people I knew at public universities never went through a "bulletproof" stage of economic security where they thought "follow your dreams" was good advice. Idealism costs money, either immediately or in the future, and they knew it.

That's not to say that people weren't idealistic, or that they didn't do the same stupid things that college students have always done, but they understood the "gritty realism" of the consequences. The idea that you could throw yourself on the economy like a trampoline and bounce back wasn't part of the equation.

Private universities or elite publics--sure.  My friends who came from upper-middle-class professional backgrounds knew they could do whatever they wanted. If they made money in the summer working for their parents' friends, it went toward backpacking in Europe and not toward next year's expenses.  It's not that one was wrong and the other right, but they were different experiences.

I've been thinking about this because of reading other Mid-Century Males, Jack Kerouac and other Beats in particular.  Kerouac didn't want to be tied down, which may be the understatement of the decade, but whenever he got the urge to travel, which was most of the time, he had two things going for him: (1) plentiful manufacturing or service jobs that he could get easily and then leave and (2) like Allen Ginsberg, a family that, though not wealthy, would scrape up the money for bail for him when he got in trouble with the law.

The same seems to be true for the following decade, the 1960s, as I mentioned in a post about a year ago in talking about Sara Davidson's Loose Change:
What I actually took away was that people in those days could quit, drop out, or do any damn thing they felt like doing, and there would be someone or something to pick them up afterwards: plentiful jobs, more jobs than there were applicants, seemingly;  a network that would allow the main character, with just a phone call from one of her parents, to go to Europe and work as a translator in Italy; and a generous system of social service benefits that wouldn't let them fall into poverty.  They could change the world--or at least the upper-middle-class white women in the book could--because the world was going to support them financially no matter what they did.  I realize that that's probably not true, but it has a truthiness to it and seems true, given what Davidson describes.
  I think Dean Dad is right, but only partially so.  The idealism gap, if you can call it that, was always there for some students, but now it's hitting the class that used to be told "follow your bliss," and that's what speaks to the troubling reality that he's talking about.


Anonymous said...

Yes, definitely a class issue. Of course, widening economic inequality (both with and without the recession) has put more people in the situation where following dreams isn't as important as job security and food. So exactly what you say, the shrinking middle class can no longer advise their kids to "follow your bliss."

We've got some old posts on that topic in our blog somewhere.

Flavia said...

I completely agree with you, and with nicoleandmaggie--it's a class issue, but it's been complicated by income inequality. It did use to be easier to live a bohemian life on little money, and the artistic life was more open to people from the middle and lower classes both for that reason and because many of the arts were less professionalized (professionalization itself being an effect of rising income inequality): you didn't have to get an MFA or MA or even a college degree to be a writer or painter or musician or actor, and you didn't have to have parents or professors with connections; you just moved to some scummy LES apartment, met a few people, and became part of the scene.

That obviously didn't guarantee any kind of success, and no one could live that way forever--but many more people could at least imagine pursuing an artistic life.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--That's what I thought. It seems, and seemed, so obvious that "follow your bliss" relies on a safety net (like plentiful jobs or financially secure parents who would support you).

Flavia--You're right about the professionalization of the arts and how access to that kind of life is more restricted now. It gets back to that issue of jobs, too: for Kerouac and the mid-century people, jobs were plentiful and always there and could, in a pinch, support you. With the degradation of wages, that's not the case today.

Z said...

Yes, although I don't think I was told it with sincerity. I think the thinking was that to study something useful would make one less valuable on the marriage market: you wanted the aristocratic stamp, so you would not just have to marry someone vulgarly "in trade" (i.e. business, medicine, engineering, law).

That was one layer. Another was, my parents imagined I would be a bohemian, and it was obvious that this would not be possible as it might have been at midcentury. A third was that it did not matter at all: I would be a suburban housewife so the best thing to study would be humanities and arts, because with that I would amuse myself on the long, lonely suburban days.

When I was going to quit academia and do something useful (although more idealistic -- it was a certain kind of law), academics *really* hit the roof, though. Everything except academic work in humanities was a crass search for shiny objects, they said.

Z said...

p.s. It is a very interesting post. I am going to have to analyze the double discourse of my parents' depression raised and not entirely feminist discourse.

On the one hand: just enjoy life, do not try too hard, do what you like. On the other: if you try anything challenging like a career, the point will be to survive, not to excel, because you will not be good enough or that.

Let me think of the ingredients. One: the idea that failure is probable and all is lost. Two: the idea that one is entitled and should jut enjoy. Three: the idea that one should be a bohemian and reject bourgeois life. Four: the idea that bourgeois life is just a phone call away.

They were born in the 20s. I was born in the 50s and people keep saying people my age are the follow-your-blissers but I think they are mistaken -- it was what we were told, but not something we thought we could do. My parents had four ideas but I had two: One: you should try to attain bourgeois standards of living, because if not life will be difficult; such attainment is difficult but possible. Two: you can excel and enjoy it; having an interesting life through work is possible; it is not a question of awful work divided from fun play.

What do you think of my generational analysis here, is it typical or not?

undine said...

z--This is interesting. It sounds as though your parents were giving you the standard line of privilege (do what you want, don't try too hard since that's vulgar, be bohemian but know that there's a bailout point), but your ideas sound like a much better life philosophy.

The academics--well, that's another story. They don't have any power over you except their opinions, and what are those worth? Pretty much zip. An essay I always loved is called "Why Paul Fussell thinks he's better than you," because it demolishes the whole "of course, academics really know the best way to live, and if you don't want to adopt these values, you're less than the dust." Academic opinions are like something I heard in a movie once: "Your ideas aren't better--just louder."

Bardiac said...

I agree that it's really a class issue. I think there are some gender issues, too. Going to college in the late 70s, I was told by my mother that it didn't much matter what I studied because I could always go to secretarial school and work as a secretary until I got married, if need be. My brother got much more professionalizing advice and opportunities from our middle-class family situation.

(I'd also add that gender mattered in Kerouac's situation, too. He didn't face the same risks that women did on the road, I don't think.)

undine said...

Bardiac--agreed. A woman hitchhiking would have an entirely more dangerous experience. If you read Carolyn Cassady's or Joyce Johnson's memoirs, you find that they're too busy making a living to support the "free" lifestyle of Kerouac and Cassady to travel much, anyway.