Friday, June 6, 2008
The View from Inside the Bubble
Last weekend, I accompanied Interesting Development to his college reunion at a selective liberal arts college located in the middle of nowhere.
You have to understand something about ID's relationship to his alma mater: he loves this place. So I was excited to visit the place that had made such an impression on him. I thought I was more or less prepared, because I'd attended a SLAC myself – albeit an urban one, and as a sophomore-year transfer student.
Then we got there, and I experienced some pretty severe culture shock. Sure, it was superficially similar: Student population of under 2000; small classes; emphasis on academic excellence; all that. But this was different. For one thing, the place is located in a "town" of 1900 (that's including the students, mind you). It's a residential college, both by design, and because the college is the town (and the next nearest tiny hamlet is a ten-minute drive away), which means that if you're a student there, you live on campus for four years. You have a sandwich or a coffee at one of the three restaurants in town (a coffee shop with a small breakfast/lunch menu, a brew pub/restaurant, a deli). You buy beer and munchies at the local market, which is really a convenience store on steroids. No need for real groceries, because you take all your meals in the dining hall. You don't worry about juggling work and class schedules, because the only work to be had in town is at one of the aforementioned three restaurants, or work-study. Your life, in other words, is the college. Everyone knows the canonical college songs, and sings them.
It would be easy to make fun of the insularity of the place. But here's the thing (and this is very hard for someone with a longstanding and resolutely lower-middle-class identity to admit): I liked it there. I liked the ivory-tower-ness of it all. I liked the collegiate gothic buildings and the prettiness of the campus. I liked the idea of the centrality of the college to students' lives (as opposed to my own experience, where my job and my off-campus life were important counterweights, and to the experience of my own urban-commuter-uni students, for whom the university is the periphery of their lives, rather than the core). God help me, I even liked the college songs (well, not the songs themselves so much as the idea of them). This, to me, was like a dream of college, rather than anything I had ever seen in action.
It was a bubble, for sure. But after spending 72 hours there, I have to admit that the view from inside the bubble is pretty nice.