Going Back, Moving On; or, In Which a Bachelor’s Degree Is Conferred

The first thing I noticed on Thursday, when I woke up in my childhood bedroom for the first time in two years, is how quiet everything is. There’s not much wildlife, no people walking past outside, no churchbells or sirens. It seems as if there’s only one ambient noise at a time. Every once in a while, a single car will drive past, or a single child will shout, or a single lawn mower will rev its engine, but then everything lapses into silence again. “Culture shock” is the only way to describe how I’m coping with returning to the place where I lived for nine years: it’s been a long time since I spent my days under the capacious, cloudless blue dome of the southern California sky, drove 80 miles an hour down the freeway, sat on a sun-drenched concrete terrace at the UCSD student center and slurped at a bowl of Japanese noodles, or even taken an elevator seven floors up instead of walked three floors down to find some books to read under Library of Congress catalogue number PR. It’s nice to see my family, nice to be on vacation, nice to have good weather. But cleaning out the piles of paper that pack my childhood bedroom hurts—to have to go back in time again, to high school, as if the past four years hadn’t happened—and as always when I go west, I feel profoundly and suddenly cut off from the close relationships one forms when one lives on a college campus and eats meals with the same people every day. And this time, it’s not just for the summer—it’s for good.

For the last few weeks before I left Princeton, I told my friends I was feeling remarkably “zen” about the end. Unlike in previous years, when I’d been stressed and depressed about going away, and irrationally afraid that I would lose touch with the people about whom I care, this year I felt primed to deal with impermanence. I was sick of Princeton, for one thing, and ready for a break; for another, I knew that at the end of June I would be diving into a European adventure with some of my closest friends; for a third, Oxford in September is a known quantity, full of its own wonderful people and new academic horizons. To be sure, it hurt a bit to pack up the co-op’s pots and pans; I felt at loose ends as people slowly started to trickle away. But in the last few days, I calmly said my goodbyes. I gave hugs. I made sure to track everyone down. I saw old friends who came back to town for alumni reunions, and felt as if not much had changed in my relationships with them. My family came to town, helped me to finish packing my life into boxes, and cheered me resolutely through three days of awards presentations and academic processionals. By day I donned academic regalia and sat and stood through solemn ceremonies; by night I sat on the floor in empty dorm rooms or went out and danced; I spent the weekend a bit buzzed on too much sparkling wine and forgot to hurt—that is, until the very end.

On Tuesday morning at 10:30am, 2,067 degree candidates processed onto the front lawn of Princeton’s campus, and despite the ludicrousness of the situation, despite the incongruity of a wind ensemble from Philadelphia playing the classics of the British festival band repertoire, I cried. I cried when it became clear that, after weeks of worrying, the weather was going to miraculously hold off to make it through the ceremony; I cried when the University president pronounced, “Auctoritate mihi a curatoribus Universitatis Princetoniensis commissa, vos ad gradum primum in artibus et cum honoribus, ut indicatum est, admitto”; and I cried at her Commencement address—one of the better defenses of a liberal arts education I’ve heard of late, and it’s my business to keep an eye out for defenses of a liberal arts education. It concluded, in part, thusly:

What I am saying is that to be successful in the 21st century, just as in the 18th century, a society requires citizens who are steeped in history, literature, languages, culture, and scientific and technological ideas from ancient times to the present day. They need to be curious about the world, broadly well-informed, independent of mind, and able to understand and sympathize with what Woodrow Wilson referred to as “the other.” Our colleges and universities need scholars who have dedicated themselves to the life of the mind, to preserving the wisdom of the ages, to generating new knowledge and a deeper understanding of the past, and to passing that knowledge and understanding on to the next generation.

Here, President Tilghman points to something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: the two senses of time that operate simultaneously in any modern university, but particularly a university like Princeton that relies for its continued success upon strong and lasting alumni relationships. There are the beneficiaries of liberal arts educations who use them as stepping-stones to other things: to lives of public service or to wealth accrual or both; to starting businesses or starting wars; to making peace or making families; to inventing new technologies and curing cancer. In the crass terms of Annual Giving, getting those people back to Reunions every year through the appeal of orange-and-black debauchery keeps investment (at the bottom line, of the financial sort) flowing into the university’s twin projects of teaching and research. In my own terms, skeptical of market logic and the rule of capital, there are many ways more than money to do good in the world, and when done right a liberal arts education can instill young people with a sense of civic responsibility they can impart in some way to their chosen life path, always remembering that the universities that set them on that path continue to require their ideological, if not their financial support. At any rate, this is one side of university time: a series of comings and goings seen from the individual perspective, in which the student graduates and then moves on, a little wiser and richer, save only—in the case of somewhere like Princeton—returning once in a while to renew the connection. In this sense of time, university is something that happens between the ages of 18 and 22, and then there’s “real life.”

But there’s another sense of university time, and it’s the one Tilghman comes to at the very end of the paragraph I quoted. Each of us who goes to university only graduates once. But every year, those whose lives are spent in having new ideas and preserving the world’s old ones pass them on to the young people who move fleetingly through their lives. (As Andrew Delbanco writes in his recent book about College, “One of the peculiarities of the teaching life is that every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.”) Every year, a professor at a place like Princeton says hello to dozens of new students and goodbye to dozens more, not to mention salutations and valedictories to colleagues and staff members and their families whose careers take them from campus to campus. For those who stay behind, I imagine, June is full of saying goodbye to people you will in all likelihood never see again, as well as to people you in all likelihood will—you just don’t know on what campus, in what country, in what year, in what guise. And I suspect, furthermore, that the observers of each sense of university time don’t fully understand the other’s sense: to the faculty and staff, alumni’s eagerness to parodically relive their college days must seem ludicrous; too rarely, on the other hand, do alumni stop to think about the full weight of what the faculty and staff do to keep an institution of higher learning operational and emotionally alive. But to observants of neither sense do the precise codes that sense prescribes for saying goodbye make saying goodbye any easier to bear.

I’m expostulating all this half-baked theory because I’m beginning to think that some of the reason a sense of severance and loneliness crept up on me when I made it out west to my parents’ home is that I don’t quite know into which category I belong. For years, I have made periods of loneliness, at Princeton or away, easier to bear by reminding myself that the university is my home and it will always be there for me. There is no leap into the unknown, no discontinuity; I’ll be returning in September to friends, mentors, and colleagues I know and to projects with which I’m familiar. I trust in the knowledge that academia is a small world, and that people from one’s previous postings have an uncanny habit of popping up when one least expects it (especially in Oxford). I’m also in the privileged position of being able to travel to see friends who are staying in the US, and/or who haven’t chosen academic paths—the only hurdle is the leap of faith it takes paranoid, shy me to trust that when I send an email out into the void, my friends miss me as much as I miss them, and will answer. Heretofore, for the most part, they’ve tended to.

And yet. On Tuesday night at 2am, diploma in hand and packing all but done, I sat down on the window seat in my empty room with one of my closest friends and we solemnly marked it as the end of an era. We’d got to know each other this year, quite by a series of chances, and a friendship flowered of the type that the novels tell me flowers when you study, read and write, eat and drink, laugh and play together, when you are young and your heart is open to connecting with others. We’ll see each other this summer. We’ll see each other next year. We’ll call and write. But we said goodbye so poignantly because we knew that, with me leaving Princeton, it wouldn’t be quite the same. That romantic openness of undergraduate days—when you can take a class in any discipline and you never know what new ideas will be stirred within you—that allowed this friendship to flourish isn’t going to come round again. When I return to the city of dreaming spires—the place where I first knew what love was, a lightness of spirit I brought back to Princeton for this final year—things will be a little more circumscribed by my professional aspirations, by the slow shift from student into scholar, from one sense of time to another. (As an aside, given that time is a river, and given that one of the last things that I did as an undergraduate was go mess about in a rowboat, I wonder what is to be made of the fact that Jerome K. Jerome’s three men, striped blazers and guitar and dog and all, spend 150-odd pages struggling resolutely upstream.)

There are still so many unanswered questions, still so many places I haven’t been and so many languages I don’t know, still so many ways my heart might yet grow larger and my soul wiser. But out here on the other side of the world (or so it seems), it is near-overwhelming to look at the walls of this old bedroom and think how much has happened inside me since I first put these posters up. And it hurts so much to think that everything that happened is now past, and that—as any Victorian or Edwardian worth their salt could have told you—youth fades, and then we have to get on as best we can with finding another sense of time, one that’s as much focused on doing good in the world as it is on our own self-development.

Princeton commencement

Bloom, “Eros,” in The Closing of the American Mind, 132-137
Davies, The Rebel Angels, 65, 187, 257
Collini, What Are Universities For?
Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, 9
Nabokov, “The University Poem
Forster, The Longest Journey

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