Criticism / Molly K. Robey
:: The End of College? ::
In the spring of 2018, the fiction writer Danielle Evans visited the small, midwestern liberal arts college where I teach in the English department. Evans read her recently published short story, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Clearly, I’m not the only one to have felt its power. Roxane Gay recently selected the story for the 2018 edition of the iconic Best American Short Stories series.
“Boys Go to Jupiter” tells the story of Claire, a white, first-year student at fictional Dennis College in New England, who finds herself at the center of escalating controversy after a photograph of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini goes viral. She’s goaded into wearing the swimsuit by a temporary boyfriend, and she goes along with it, hoping the “trashy” bikini will piss off her new stepmother. Claire barely registers the significance of her clothing choice, until the boyfriend posts the photo to Facebook. It doesn’t take long for the photo to become a subject of intense debate and controversy. Claire’s African-American hall mate promptly sees the photo and tweets her outrage. Claire’s photo is reposted and re-tweeted in various contexts. The locally trending topic #clairewilliamsvacationideas includes the suggestions “Auschwitz, My Lai,” and “Wounded Knee.” [i] An organization named the Heritage Defenders takes up what they imagine to be Claire’s cause (though Claire, a recent resident of the northern Virginia suburbs, can hardly claim southern identity). Claire’s email address is made public, and hundreds of angry, supportive, and pornographic messages find their way to her inbox. Within a few days, the Dennis College campus has erupted in tension. Claire herself doubles down in the midst of this controversy, printing a Confederate flag postcard for the hall mate and posting another to her dorm door. Claire’s adviser and the Vice Dean of Diversity ask Claire to apologize for her behavior. At the campus town hall held to help students process the anger and fear the bikini photo has inspired, Claire remains unrepentant. In this moment, surrounded by angry peers, Claire persists in telling herself “she can still be anybody she wants to.” [ii]
For those of us who work and live in the world of the small liberal arts college, the story’s events ring true. Over the past four years, our small school has witnessed assorted incidents: the tearing down of Black Lives Matter posters and the defacing of Muslim Student Association posters, the scrawling of the n-word across the “Aspiration Fountain” where orientation leaders encourage first-year students to chalk their hopes and dreams. We’ve watched the university respond to each incident in its institutional manner, with forums held and forceful yet vague promises made to meet student demands for a better, more inclusive, campus climate. Students have organized and requested that faculty receive mandatory diversity training each year, and the faculty have assented. Evans’s story suggests that these kinds of institutional responses are inadequate; they barely scratch the surface of the modern problems such events manifest: the ways that social media determine the truths within which we must live, the ways that privilege has co-opted the language of resistance, the complexity of individual culpability in a systemically racist society. But for those of us who work in this world, something else resonates here as well. The story asserts that the idea of college—as a space of transformation and reinvention—is mere fiction. When Claire tells herself in the midst of this chaos that, “she can still be anybody she wants to,” we know she is wrong.
Like Claire, I believed that in college I would be able to become anybody I wanted to. This was the mid-1990s, and my pile of college brochures, each thick and glossy, full of beautifully casual people walking past lush, ancient trees in their sweatshirts, was a treasured stash. I studied these images, trying to determine the perfect place to go, the place where I would become myself, someone wholly new and still unthinkable. Shirley Marchalonis compares this ideal of college to the “green world” described by Shakespeare scholars. [iii] In this view, college is a space “away from the ‘real world’’’ that has “its own reality,” a space that is “beautiful, mysterious, and magical.” [iv] This college is a “place of transformation,” where “temporary inhabitants grow, change, seek identities and find solutions.” [v] This college was the one I assumed was waiting for me. The impression in my mind was vague but palpable. Much like the title character of Owen Johnson’s 1912 novel Stover at Yale, I anticipated the freedom that college seemed to promise. I, too, imagined that the freedom “to venture and to experience” would lead me to the knowledge of “that strange, guarded mystery—life.” [vi]
For the past few years, I have been studying the stories we tell about college. Perhaps because I keep hearing the refrain that higher education is in “crisis” (a cursory search for “crisis” on The Chronicle of Higher Education website will yield more than 230 articles published in the past year alone), or perhaps because my students’ experience of college life appears so different from my own, I’ve felt drawn to thinking about the ways that college has been understood and imagined. The stories we tell about college are changing. Are they changing because college itself has changed? A number of scholars have asserted that recent decades have witnessed the “financialization” of the university and that the university’s assimilation of corporate ideals has fundamentally altered education. [vii] The past two decades have also seen the advent and ascension of social media. Can college no longer make itself a “world apart” in this digital environment? Or, are the stories we tell about college changing to reflect a reality that has always existed? Was my fantasy of college transformation only ever fantasy, the product of some amount of privilege and blindness? I’ll admit there is nostalgia motivating me in this pursuit, some imprecise sense that things used to be better in some way. Like most nostalgia, the reality turns out to be more complex than the contours of my fuzzy, sepia-toned memories would lead me to believe.
In the United States, stories about college life began to be told in the 1830s, and they gained popularity as the nineteenth century wore on. Perhaps what is most surprising about the popularity of such stories is that it outpaced the actual popularity of college itself. By 1900, only about 4 percent of the school-age population attended college. [viii] At the same time, the subject of the college man or college girl appeared regularly in popular magazines, and books about campus life enjoyed healthy sales. Despite the paucity of actual college students in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea of college circulated widely and seems to have occupied an outsized role in the way readers imagined the maturation of the individual in democratic society.
The earliest of these published college stories suggest that transformation and growth were central to the story of college. The few scholars who analyze college fiction inevitably refer to stories and books about campus life as bildungsroman, stories of a young person’s development and emergence into society. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1828 novel Fanshawe traces the maturation of the fictional Harley College students Edward Walcott and Fanshawe as they compete with each other over the college president’s young ward Ellen Langton and later rescue her from kidnapping. Walcott and Fanshawe, one a rather superficial young man and the other a serious and sickly scholar, each change, becoming thoughtful men of action through their interactions with each other. [ix] Still, Fanshawe offers a rather slight portrait of its characters’ development.
By the end of the nineteenth century, we can read about more substantive college transformations. The handsome and carefree title character of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s 1893 novel Donald Marcy “finds everything has always come easily to him,” until a hazing incident gone terribly wrong causes introspection. [x] Before he even understands it, Marcy begins to see the “educated life” as connected to “the honor and the preciousness of all those intangible values which come to a man.” [xi] Marcy turns away from the capitalism and materialism of his Wall Street father and the hijinks of his early college friends, finding self-realization in studying and helping others. Marcy’s maturity is due in large part to the influence of his friendship with the Smith College student Fay, whose formidable intellect and accomplishments set a model for him to emulate.
College women too could expect to leave school with a new sense of self in addition to their ironically named bachelor’s degrees. In Helen Dawes Brown’s Two College Girls (1886), the effervescent, superficial Rosamund gains a seriousness of purpose through her college experience while her intellectual and prim roommate Edna emerges as a more compassionate and socially adept woman. What Edna treasures as the most “real” experience of her life, she states, is “the finding out of new ideas—the seeing of old things in a new light” that has transpired in college. [xii] Speaking at commencement, Edna’s roommate Rosamund fondly recounts the “colleging”—the pranks, holidays, friendships, and scholarly triumphs—that have led to her own and her fellow graduates’ considerable personal development. [xiii] For these young women, as for countless other undergraduates imagined in the college fiction of the era, college is a space in which individuals tend to discover themselves, developing their nascent talents and strengths and discarding their careless behaviors and poor manners.
In Two College Girls, Edna and Rosamund’s teachers explain that college inevitably leads to transformation, because it puts students “in the way of influencing each other.” [ivx] Genuine friendship, forged unexpectedly across the social borders of popularity, temperament, regional affiliation, and class, provides the catalyst for most of the collegiate transformation that takes place in college stories. Studying matters, but the knowledge gained from experience, and in particular the experience of others, matters more. In seeming to bring together diverse individuals in this way, college has often occupied a symbolic place in U.S. culture. It stands as a particularly democratic institution, a meritocracy in which individuals pursue achievement on a level playing field and gain valuable training as citizens. As the cultured Monsieur Darcy informs the young Armory Blaine in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 college novel This Side of Paradise, “democracy” is something he will “find plenty of … in college.” [xv]
However, the few scholarly studies of college fiction that have been published suggest that our ideals of college democracy and the transformation it engenders have only ever been myth. Examining representations of friendship in postbellum U.S. college fiction, Travis M. Foster concludes that the affectionate bonds depicted in these novels exist to consolidate white supremacy and to mend sectional tensions in the wake of national division. Reaching similar conclusions, Christopher Findeisen explores issues of class addressed in college fiction, showing how college has always been imagined as a space for the upper class to play and develop. What has changed over time, Findeisen asserts, is that colleges and universities have “evolved to become institutions that produced economic differences rather than institutions that merely reflected them” [xvi] Both scholars have illuminated the function of not only the university but also college fiction in producing and reproducing an American elite. As our stories about college emphasize individual transformation and achievement, they direct attention away from what yet remains visible, that “the university is largely a site for the upper class to compete with itself in games that have essentially no economic meaning because their outcomes are more or less assured.” [xvii] Transformation, or at least the illusion of transformation, is a mark of privilege.
As Foster notes, some voices questioned the story of college even as it was being written. In the short story “Of the Coming of John,” W. E. B. Du Bois writes of a young man from Altamaha, Georgia, who departs for college as the great pride of his rural black community. At the Wells Institute, John grows “in body and soul”; he gains “dignity” and “thoughtfulness.” [xviii] His professor remarks, “all the world toward which he strove was of his own building, and he builded slow and hard.” [ixx] Drawn away from home into a “world of thought,” John discovers himself and utterly transforms at college—in manner, perspective, skill, and understanding. [xx] However, when John returns home to southeastern Georgia, he finds his intellectual and personal growth have put him at odds with his family and community, and, worse, they have provoked the town’s anxious white community. Another John, the white son of the town’s judge, has also returned from college. When this white John attempts to assault John’s sister, John kills him and is lynched by a white mob. In Du Bois’s hands, we see the story of college masks the story of systemic racism and power. Neither John transforms. The white John does not want to nor does he need to; the world is designed for him. The black John is not permitted such transformation.
The story of college that Du Bois tells here has been told again and again in African American literature. A beautiful world of learning provides an oasis and a path to achievement and uplift. This place promises the improvement of the individual, promises that here the individual can be remade and in turn can remake the world. Yet, this promise proves illusory. From Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1903–4) to Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947), college becomes visible as a space that exists not for individual transformation but for the reproduction of the status quo.
The story of college as transformation meets this critique of college in “Boys Go to Jupiter.” Claire’s fantasy of reinvention at Dennis College is manifestly symptomatic of the white privilege Du Bois exposes as tacitly underpinning assumptions about higher education’s transformative potential. Like “Of the Coming of John,” Evans’s story exposes the fantasy of transformation by juxtaposing the intertwined fates of its black and white characters. As the consequences of Claire’s unthinking mistake unfold, flashbacks inform the reader of a darker, more intimate story of race and racism, the story of Claire’s best friendship with Angela Hall. After Claire and Angela meet as six-year-old neighbors, the girls are inseparable, sharing a special affection as they taunt Angela’s brother Aaron with the nonsense rhyme, “girls go to college to get more knowledge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider” (643). The girls grow into adolescents together and even endure their mothers’ respective cancers together. Claire plans that they will someday “go to college together,” where “the world will unravel for them, fall at their feet.” [xxi] Only Claire’s mother’s death and Angela’s mother’s recovery severs the girls’ bond. And race, Angela’s blackness, is only ever incidental. That is, incidental to Claire.
If the girls’ shared experience of their mothers’ illnesses seems like evidence of the kind of universal experience and human connection that underlies some appeals to building a post-racial U.S. society, further tragedy underscores how unrealistic such a vision remains. One year after Claire’s mom’s death, Aaron drives a drunk, grieving Claire home from a party and is killed when a pack of white teenage boys run him off the road. The boys, who imagine they are rescuing Claire from this young black man she has known all her life, are found not responsible, and Aaron’s death is ruled an accident, though the Hall family understands the events through different terms. As Aaron’s fate makes clear, even in the twenty-first century and even among educated and privileged suburban neighbors, not everyone can expect the world to fall at her feet.
As a child, Aaron points out the logical fallacy of the girls’ rhyme. It doesn’t make sense that boys would go to Jupiter to get “more stupider,” Aaron quite rationally explains, since, in order to reach Jupiter, one would have to be incredibly intelligent. Evans’s story seems to suggest that it is no more sensible to believe that “college” is the place to get “more knowledge.” This is the stuff of child’s games.
After I listened to Evans read this story before an audience of alternately eager, anxious, and bored undergraduates in the richly wood-paneled auditorium of our college library, I felt disheartened. This story is about the end of college, I thought. There is no reinvention, no transformation, only stasis and spin. The narrative that the campus is fixated on, whether one young woman’s stupid choice to wear a hateful symbol should be condemned as racist or celebrated for its self-expression of southern “heritage,” is not even the real story here. Neither of these interpretations of Claire is true, exactly. The deeper story of Claire’s relationship to Angela and Aaron causes us to ask complex questions—what culpability does Claire have for what happens to Aaron? Is she a different kind of victim, one of the racist and sexist ideology that imagines her as the white woman ever vulnerable to the predatory black male? Is ignorance as bad as racism? How can love and racism coexist?—that are only flattened in this campus environment. Dennis College is not a world apart in which the freedom of experience and the pursuit of knowledge lead to reinvention and personal growth. But for all the ways that Evans’s story signals the end of the story of college, it suggests that there might be another story to tell.
In an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2018, Lisi Schoenbach cautions readers against engaging in too spirited a critique of the university, lest we undermine the credibility of an institution we need now more than ever. Schoenbach writes, “it can be true that the university is implicated in neoliberalism while also being true that universities are often the defenders of free speech, anti-instrumentality, and dissent.” [xxii] Maybe college is not and has never been truly a space of transformation, but it can be a space of reckoning, at least of a kind. College can be a space in which systemic injustice and the myths that ease its functioning are observed and named. It can be a space of dialogue, confrontation, and expression. In our current world, college may be the only space where this is possible.
The college town hall event that concludes Evans’s story is not an opportunity to pose difficult questions. Still, in this space, even as Claire’s story is misunderstood, we see an exchange of perspectives, and we see Claire begin to become aware of her privileged place in the world. One white student stands at the microphone and offers an apology for racism, another recites the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” though no one can tell whether this performance is an earnest endorsement or a critique of the song’s glorification of the U.S. South. Claire watches as various speakers—all white—file on to and off of the stage. Carmen, the hall mate who first tweeted her outrage at Claire’s bikini photo, sits in the audience, “surrounded by two full rows of black students, more black people than Claire has ever seen on campus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black people than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” The group sits silently. They wait. Eventually, after the stage has been empty for ten minutes, the black students stand and leave the room, intentionally, one at a time. No one has spoken, but it would be wrong to say that these students have not made themselves heard. At the end, Claire finds herself unable to resist the deafening quiet. She approaches the microphone, as Evans tells us, still telling herself that reinvention and transformation remain possible. We know this is the wrong story for Claire to tell herself, but we can also see that college has precipitated some self-awareness, however modest, for Claire. When it “occurs to her” that she has come face to face with “more black people than” she “has ever seen at once,” Claire has been brought to account in some small way. Evans also suggests here that Claire’s is not the only story of college that warrants telling. In their performance of purposeful silence, Carmen and her fellow black students not only call into question the stories that many of us have persisted in telling ourselves about college. They also intimate the existence of other college stories that still remain to be told.
[i] Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Sewanee Review (Fall 2017), 646.
[ii] Evans, 661.
[iii] Shirley Marchalonis, College Girls: A Century in Fiction (Rutgers University Press, 1995), 25.
[vi] Owen Johnson, Stover at Yale (Frederick A. Stokes, 1912), 5.
[vii] Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (Verso, 2017).
[viii] Colin B. Burke, American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View (New York Univ. Press, 1982), 55.
[ix] It is worth noting that Hawthorne was so embarrassed of this book, his first novel, that he later attempted to buy up all the existing copies and burn them.
[x] Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Donald Marcy (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1983), 64.
[xi] Ibid., 72.
[xii] Helen Dawes Brown, Two College Girls (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), 144.
[xiii] Ibid., 314.
[xiv] Ibid., 112.
[xv] F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (Scribner, 1920), 32.
[xvi] Christopher Findeisen, “‘The One Place Where Money Makes No Difference’: The Campus Novel from Stover at Yale through The Art of Fielding,” American Literature 88. 1 (March 2016), 77.
[xvii] Ibid., 82.
[xviii] W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John,” The Souls of Black Folk (1903; Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), 166.
[xix] Ibid., 163.
[xx] Ibid., 163.
[xxi] Evans, 648.
[xxii] Lisi Schoenbach, “Enough with the Crisis Talk!: To Salvage the University, Explain Why It’s Worth Saving,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (16 May 2018).
Brown, Helen Dawes. Two College Girls. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886.
Burke, Colin B. American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View. New York Univ. Press, 1982.
Collini, Stefan. Speaking of Universities. Verso, 2017.
Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of the Coming of John.” The Souls of Black Folk. 1903; Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003, 162–176.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage International, 1980.
Evans, Danielle. “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Sewanee Review, Fall 2017, 639–661, https://thesewaneereview.com/articles/boys-go-to-jupiter
Findeisen, Christopher. “‘The One Place Where Money Makes No Difference’: The Campus Novel from Stover at Yale through The Art of Fielding,” American Literature, 88.1, March 2016, 67–91.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. Scribner, 1920.
Foster, Travis M. “Campus Novels and the Nation of Peers,” American Literary History, 26.3, Fall 2014, 462–483.
Gay, Roxane, ed. The Best American Short Stories 2018. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Fanshawe. Wildside Press, 2003.
Hopkins, Pauline. Of One Blood; Or, the Hidden Self. Washington Square Press, 2004.
Johnson, Owen. Stover at Yale. Frederick A. Stokes, 1912.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. Martino Publishing, 2011.
Marchalonis, Shirley. College Girls: A Century in Fiction. Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Donald Marcy. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1983, 64.
Schoenbach, Lisi. “Enough with the Crisis Talk!: To Salvage the University, Explain Why It’s Worth Saving,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 May 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Enough-With-the-Crisis-Talk-/243423
Molly K. Robey is an assistant professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. She has published articles in American Literature, Legacy, Studies in American Fiction, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Most recently, she has been researching the origins of the College Girl in U.S. culture.