Bright College Years by Andrew Pessin

2024-03-10 13:00:12

For a novel that is smart and fun, Bright College Years is also pretty depressing; it reminds us of a lost world, of what the campus experience once was, but is no longer now that so many universities have become mockeries of themselves. It’s also possibly timely: if recent events (optimistically) portend that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the self-mockery age of higher education, then maybe Bright College Years could help serve as a model for the restructuring ahead.

Set in 1980s Yale, the story tells of a gang of friends going through their four years together. For most people who went to college in that era I suspect much will be familiar: not merely in the political and cultural events that frame their experience (the novel opens with a concert by the Pretenders on the Yale campus, on the eve of Jimmy Carter’s crushing defeat by Ronald Reagan) but the in particular kinds of incidents and occasional hijinx (ranging from clever to juvenile) that typically constituted four years of maturing adolescents at a residential college. Most salient about this gang, however, is how much they talk.

A key professor who influences many of them has a sign on his office door that says, “Sit Long, Talk Much.” Already reflecting a lost art in our contemporary age of professorial indoctrination and social conformity, not to mention the social isolation imposed by smartphones, the gang indeed sits long together, face to face—in the dining hall, in dorm rooms, at the late-night snack bar, etc.—and talks, debates, banters, much. They’re smart but also young, so conversations address topics big and small, weighty and light, serious and silly. What matters is less any specific conclusion—in fact some sustained disagreements loom large through the story creating some tension between the characters—than the mutual respect that grows through the process of genuine face-to-face dialogue. They understand that ideas are provisional, that a young person (and an old one too!) is a work in progress, there is no “cancellation” here when someone floats a thought that others might find “harmful” or “offensive,” but rather “more talk,” attempts at mutual understanding and persuasion.

These are the days before identity politics and political correctness set in to largely shut down the sitting long and talking much model. As the narrator remarks on more than one occasion, “You were allowed to say that then.” John Stuart Mill, patron saint of free speech, would turn back over in his grave, to right-side up, after having turned in his grave witnessing the early 21st-century campus.

The gang does other things, too. There’s a fair amount of drinking, smoking weed, and sex, all things that youths these days reportedly do much less of. And while such activities contribute in important ways to the college experience, the novel handles them in a balanced way. Not all the gang indulge or approve; some are quite skeptical of the need to “enhance” one’s experience by means of substances, and there are debates on the topic. More importantly, the main character, Jeffrey, now an adult long having given up the drugs, looks back on them not exactly approvingly (“what I could have been,” he wonders at one point), but also not exactly with regret. “Joining the Carillon Guild,” he notes, discussing one of his quirkier extracurriculars, “was one of the best things I’ve ever done, ranking just beneath quitting drugs, itself just beneath doing drugs in the first place.” That nails it: wherever we land in our adult versions, we take all sorts of circuitous paths to get there, and we make mistakes, and the person we are at the final destination doesn’t always look so kindly upon the many stops along the way.

But all of that is essential. As another character puts it—who happens to be black but comes out of the closet as a conservative by the end of the story, doing a senior thesis on Thomas Sowell of all people—the institution itself must allow us to make our mistakes and learn from them rather than dictate how to behave. Thus both doing a thing and stopping the doing of a thing can be equally valuable in creating who we become, even if, sometimes, as in this novel, we have to figure out exactly how to relate to those earlier, less palatable versions of ourselves. As Jeffrey’s wife listens to his many stories with the gang she remarks, at one point, “I have a hard time connecting you to that guy.” But so, interestingly, does he.

All that, warts included, is just so much healthier than the soul-destroying madness that has taken over campus in recent years—where the mistakes one makes can instantly lead to social destruction, rather than serve as opportunities for self-discovery and maturation.

Personally I would have enjoyed more scenes in the classroom. But then again, so much of what is valuable, in terms of social, emotional, and intellectual development, is what happens outside the classroom. And what classroom scenes there are, are, alas, a little ominous, to we who know what’s coming to campuses in the decades ahead. The key professor above is something of a 1960s-holdover radical whose aims include (surprise, surprise) the subversion of Western Civilization. Indeed the novel chronicles Yale’s abolition of the actual major in Western Civilization in the early 1980s, attributing it to the machinations of this (fictional?) professor. With the benefit of our hindsight one sees in this fellow, perhaps, the forward line of the infiltration of what would become the Woke movement. Forebodingly, one feels the novel is capturing the final days of an era—the end of a golden age—if not of Western Civilization itself.

There’s much more, but in, short, Bright College Years is a fast and easy read, entertaining, yet it packs a pretty deep punch, particularly with its glance at how things used to be on campus. A valuable read at the current moment in higher education


Scott Johnston is the author of the satirical novel Campusland as well as the forthcoming All the Lovely People. Campusland is currently being developed for television. His opinions are his own but should be everyone’s.


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