What We Wish We’d Known in College

Keith Gessen of n+1 magazine spoke at Scripps / Claremont a few weeks ago. n+1 a relatively new literary journal and political magazine started by a bunch of 30-something intellectuals. Here’s A.O. Scott’s fantastic profile from awhile back of the editors and their venture.

They give freshmen in college a free copy of their pamphlet "What We Should Have Known," a transcript of eleven editors discussing what they wish they’d known in college, specifically about books. What books should they have read, what should they have read earlier, what should they have not read, etc. It’s interesting if a bit esoteric — I hadn’t heard of most of the philosophers and authors they talk about — but there are some good nuggets which I excerpt below.

On advice to an 18 year-old:

Caleb Crain: If I were speaking to an 18 year-old, I’d say, "Don’t worry. Don’t be precocious." But the flip side of that is, this is the only life you’ll get, and it won’t come again. So, I don’t think you should be precocious, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up for not having published a book at the age of 28, but I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.

On becoming an intellectual, in the postscript by Keith Gessen, love the last sentence:

I am certain that the most valuable parts of these talks lie beyond those debates. They are the moments when the panelists reveal their deep uncertainty — Meghan Falvey walking in a mist of abstraction on the way to her dorm from Phenomenology, Existentialism, and something else with a P — and how each of them has struggled to read and think their way out of that uncertainty. It turns out that in order to become an intellectual, you must first become a pseudo-intellectual. But to have the courage, in the meantime, of your uncertainty — to remain open to things, and serious about them — would be a pretty good way to go through college, and not just college.

One of the more surprising parts of the transcript was when most announced they shouldn’t have gone to college, the very place where they were exposed to most of the books they had been discussing:

Ilya Bernstein: I do have one regret. I regret having gone to college!

Rebecca Curtis: Me too!

Siddhartha Deb: I do too. I think it’s a waste.

Mark Grief: It would be much better if you were released into the world when you were 18, and instead you’re kept in this juvenile  detention for a further four years, in which you’re equipped with things which, frankly, you’d be able to understand much better later —

Ilya Bernstein: I would have done much more if I’d been out of college.

Mark Greif: And to have an entire nation of people going to college, right? That’s ridiculous.

Siddhartha Deb: I think we should go straight to work.

Ilya Bernstein: It was actually like a hiatus in my life. I did stuff before college and I did stuff after college, but what the hell did I do in college?

Benjamin Kunkel: It’s summer camp.

Ilya Bernstein: Four years of summer camp.

Mark Greif: It’s like being buried alive, or something, right?

Ilya Bernstein: But you enjoy it.

Mark Greif: Of course, but you come back from the dead, and you start the chronology over again…It’s life before and after Christ…before and after college. And it shouldn’t be like that.

On the definition of an essayist:

Mark Greif: Essayist! That’s interesting. You know, you go through life not really knowing who you are, and one day, somebody calls you an essayist. Out of all the pathetic categories that I read growing up, I knew there was no bigger joke than an essayist. Someone who couldn’t write something long enough to actually grab hold of anyone, someone without hte imagination to write fiction, someone without the romantic inspiration to write poetry, and someone who would never make any money to be published. I’m an essayist!

9 comments on “What We Wish We’d Known in College
  • I never attended college, and I believe that I’ve traveled more, had more leisure time in the years when I was most physically vigorous to enjoy it, and all in all, had a better-rounded life than most of the college graduates I know.

    I dropped out of high school because it was such a crushing bore and I didn’t like being subservient to half-educated idiots. Later, I was accepted to a state university on the strength of my college boards, but declined to attend when I realized I’d be spending four years under the ghastly glow of inhumane fluorescent lights.

    Regarding Mark Greif’s remarks on being an essayist, I would say that I’ve found reading the essays of Francis Bacon and Montaigne more profitable than the the sum total of all the novels (hundreds) that I’ve ever read.

    I think one of the best reasons to obtain one’s own liberal arts education outside the purview of university is to avoid being infected by the anti-humanist propaganda that sociopaths like Chris Burden (who shot at airplanes and called it performance art) are artists.

    Now the absurdists are amping up their campaign to negate human decency and all that makes life worth living by replacing them with the ultimate absurdity– they want us to believe that Johnny Knoxville and the crew of Jackass are creating fine art.

    Gag me with a shovel.

  • Thanks for this Ben! I’m going to check this pamphlet out because it’s piqued my interest.

    I think that for me college was a overall a great decision, but only because I was fortunate enough to have other things going for me and I took the time to complement my academic education with an array of outside pursuits. I was able to round myself out by doing things and reading books that most people wouldn’t. In my last years of college I had a list of 20 qualities I wanted to work on, and I focused on developing one quality per week. Many of the things I do today are because of a direct result of what I was exposed to at college. It really is about immersion.

    On the other hand, looking back, I do feel that it temporarily stifled the idea of creating real value. I went to the top artist’s school in the country for my profession, but I noticed that absolutely everybody was considered a genius, because art is “subjective.” Most people in the program were just “doing time:” they were not using it as the training ground it was meant for, and I sort of forgot how important it was to create value and I focused more on the grades.

    So indeed, I needed to realign myself again after college, but this was my doing alone. I soon got the entrepreneurial itch, and realized that this was the missing piece of the puzzle.

    Calling college a “dentention center” is true only if you make it that way, only if you do what’s expected of you (which in college, isn’t much). I loved that line as well, the one of keeping yourself open to uncertainty.


  • Check out the book “Indecision” (It’s quite good) by one of the founders of n+1. It’s actually dedicated “for n+1.”

  • The Essayist reference is the most absurd I’ve ever read.

    The description is presumptuous in that it chronicles an essayist as someone –

    -without an identity as to which genre one belongs (can’t someone be versatile? Is it necessary to get locked up in just one box? After all, it’s just one life you got)

    -who can’t write long enough (what if she is capable of articulating her view in fewer words?) to grab attention ( she could as well be writing for herself, why not?)

    -without imagination to write fiction (she could narrate reality in more imaginative ways, as simple as that?)

    -without romantic inspiration to write poetry (what if the best lines failed to capture the sweetness of her experience?)

    -could never make money to be published (that’s the dumbest….her money would’ve had better uses. Publishing could just be bad ROI, you know..! )

  • The list of things I wish I’d known in college is long, even though I had a great college experience.

    The problem is that the most important ones (“Understand who you are,” “Know how to manage your time,” “Learn to ignore the opinions of those who don’t matter to you”) can only come with experience.

    While “finding yourself” may be a terrible cliche, it is one of the most important things a young person can do. Of course, in many ways, I didn’t find myself until I was nearly 30, so it’s hard to see how I could have done so by the time I got to college.

    What makes college valuable is that it is a low-risk environment that allows you to try things. Sure, the side-product of this low-risk environment is that knuckleheads can use it to spend their days drinking, toking, and playing XBox while still managing to graduate with a degree in Economics, but others use it far more effectively to explore different interests and aspects of themselves.

    Even the posers who become pseudo-intellectuals, radical activists, or LUGs (lesbian-until-graduation) may be learning something useful about themselves. And as n+1 points out, you have to be a pseudo-intellectual to become a real one. Posing is an important and necessary step along the way to true achievement.

    Perhaps things are different in this day and age, as Ben’s example shows, but expecting people to be fully formed at 18 is pretty unrealistic (and don’t give me any BS about how things were different in the past…it doesn’t take much personal development to push a plow).

    Moreover, every person is different. Some people need college, some don’t. Some people treat it like daycare, and others take advantage of all the incredible opportunities it provides, inside and outside the classroom.

    A pen can be used to write a fatwa, or to write “Kubla Khan”; neither use makes it good or evil.

  • I’ve often questioned the value of college. I wish I had been brave enough to take a few years to work, travel, and read things I was genuinely interested in before I started college. I think I would have valued the experience much more if I had.

  • Is there any way to gain technical education other than college? For liberal arts or business I can see how useless college is. But for plasma physics, where else can you go?

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