First-World Problems; or, in Which Our Heroine Strives to Find a New Outlook on Her Middle-Class Liberal Guilt

Greetings from Granville, Basse-Normandie, on whose cliffs I have been climbing and on whose plages I have been promenading for the past three days, really and truly en vacances. I felt left behind and increasingly culture-shocked in my last weeks in Paris, as the city emptied out and the real Parisians were replaced by tourists. It turns out they’ve all (or, at least some representative sample of them) wound up here, in a little town by the seaside, full not of tourists but of holiday-makers. The distinction is a fine but an important one: there are loads of little historical and cultural tidbits here, but no Mona Lisa or Notre Dame, nothing anyone’s heard of. No one is gawking at anything; there are no crowds; occasionally someone takes a picture of the view or a particularly photogenic omelette, but there’s no strobe effect of flashes. French and British tourists, with the occasional German, Netherlander, or Scandinavian thrown in, wander up and down cobblestone streets, lie out on the beach (except for during the predictable afternoon or evening downpour, at which point they all calmly seek shelter under overhangs until it passes), and eat galettes and crêpes, which seem to be the local staple. I haven’t heard a single American accent since I’ve been here—not even, since almost none of the locals speak English, while they do speak French slowly enough to be comprehensible, my own. I’m staying in a crumbling Victorian railway hotel, across the road from the station, very few of whose fixtures seem to have been updated since the original introduction of indoor plumbing. But due to a fortunate failure of the toilet in my original budget single room, I’ve been moved to a spacious ground-floor double with ensuite bath and garden view, and I’ve been splitting my time this blissful week between people-watching on the beach and sitting at the desk in my room (though in my room all I seem to do is write emails; it seems that it’s only over leisurely lunches that I’ve been able to make progress on my academic work). Really, I’m having a wonderful time, and I could see coming to a place like this every summer to rest and recuperate, just like those who, the city museum today informed me, came here 150 years ago to take the supposedly health-giving waters.

In addition to noticing the absence of American accents in Granville, I’ve noticed the absence of posh accents. Granted, I can’t tell the difference in French, but because of its proximity a lot of British tourists come here on their holidays, and all of them sound so very normal. The tone was set on the train from Paris, when I sat opposite two older English ladies—one with a working class southern accent, one with a Yorkshire accent, who I gathered both now lived in London—who spent the entire three-hour journey exchanging gossip about the marriages and deaths and shop closures in their community, and who, when I dropped my iPod under the seat, kindly tapped my shoulder and informed me in halting, half-remembered school French. All summer, I’ve been feeling guilty that I have the freedom to spend most of it abroad. Even though I’m for the most part paying my own way, even though so many young people who finish university take the time to see a little bit of the world before starting the next stage of their lives, I felt, in Paris, as if every time I met a new person and she or he asked me what I was doing there and I struggled to find a good reason that I was spending the month there, I reeked of unconscionable privilege. It’s a relief to come to the seaside and find hundreds of other people whose national cultures allow them to come to the seaside every year. It reminds me how shocked I was when I was last in Britain and I first learned that “Where are you going on your holidays this year?” was an appropriate small-talk conversation to ask of people like hairdressers or shop owners. I’d never assume that someone in that position in the US would have the opportunity to take holiday time, and it’s good to know that, for all its faults, Europe isn’t quite so class-stratified as the US.

That said, I’m still really struggling to understand my class position, especially as my departure date for Oxford inches ever closer. The last time I was in Oxford, the part of my mind that’s always whispering, “You horrible, selfish person! How can you conscience studying history in university when there are starving children in Africa? How can you conscience having nice things, being comfortable, using the electricity and the running water? How can you not be devoting every second of your life to helping those less fortunate?” started to quiet down. And I worked hard and played hard, I learned so much (about history, about myself) and had so much fun, and I laughingly called myself a champagne socialist and really meant it, because I went to garden parties and drank champagne and bitched about the Tories. And now I’m going back, and I wonder if it’s going to happen again. I fell in love with Oxford the first time, well and truly in love, and it felt so liberating to take joy in my daily work and not to hate myself. But I also stopped being an activist, stopped being committed first and foremost to raging against the machine, grew disturbingly to accept my place amongst the privileged few, and started ever more frequently to rationalize my intention to stay there: “We need hearts and minds as well as bodies, and universities are there to help the former to flourish. We need teachers who will inculcate that sense of commitment to making the world better that young people need to do the work in the trenches. Guarding the world’s knowledge is a good in itself. College communities are utopias and we need them as a visible alternative to the capitalist consensus. My happiness matters; I have as much of a right to it as anyone else to love myself and what I do.” But none of it really seems to explain why, instead of getting a job this summer, I took off for Europe; none of it seems to explain why I’m spending my money on omelettes instead of giving it to the homeless; none of it seems to explain why I deserve to make a living studying dead white men while there are other people even in my own countries who can’t afford to eat at all. I may be really excited to go back to Oxford, to start a new academic project, to live in the city that changed my life. But that doesn’t make it okay.

In the past couple weeks, the conversation about such justifications that I had with a friend on the banks of the Seine has haunted me, and in the past few days, a long discussion on my Facebook wall about the custom of “subfusc,” or academic dress, at Oxford has spiralled into a stormy argument about privilege, class inequality, and exclusion. And suddenly I once more feel guilty that I’ve been so excited to move up to a graduate’s, instead of a commoner’s, academic gown. Because just like carbon offsets don’t actually stop global warming, donating your spare income or volunteering your spare time to charity doesn’t erase the fact that you have money in the bank, a fancy scholarship letting you study a “useless” subject, all the free wine any student could possibly want, and a life generally full of material and spiritual comfort. And it’s not like I do a lot of that donating/volunteering anyway.

There are a few reasons to believe that I’m not a morally awful human being. For I do believe we’d all of us be much poorer as a civilization if there were no one among us to study and to teach the humanities. And I do believe that we all have a fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness, and that there is a place for it at the table of human interests alongside our obligation to the greater good. I believe that we can’t do the greatest good of which we are each individually capable unless we each love what we do so much that we can’t help but infect others with our joy in it; and I know that those who devote every waking hour of their day to helping others very often, unless they’re made of superhuman stuff, don’t last long, in body or in spirit, at doing it (see: the Teach for America model).

This still doesn’t help me to fall asleep easily at night; nor, unfortunately, does it give me the motivation I need, if I’m not going to be utilitarian about my life, at least to put everything I have into my academic work. These two articles are not getting written; my next thesis is not getting begun. I guess what I’m saying is that I need help: at finding a way to live a socially responsible life that keeps me inspired enough to stay motivated, despite the fact that being “inspired” about what one does is a privilege that only the most fortunate have; at finding a way to have faith that academia really can be a socially responsible vocation, even and especially when it doesn’t mean giving basic education to the most underprivileged populations; and maybe trying to find other possible life choices that make me feel as if I have a reason to keep living just as much as the life of the mind, while doing more to actually lead a good and socially useful life.

But on the other hand (isn’t there always another hand?) as I free-associate from guilt to guilt now, another thought occurs to me. One thing I’ve learned in my work is that supposed social responsibility often has its dark side, especially in historical hindsight. It’s only when we look at Victorian social reformers with fresh eyes that we can see both the transformative effects of their particular brand of progressive reformist Protestantism upon those living in urban slums in England or America, and their unintentionally devastating effects as missionaries in countries far from their own. Indeed, as any bright-eyed Ivy League grad who’s gone into development work post-graduation could probably tell you (and many have told me), it’s awfully tricky to know how you, as a rich white American, can help those of the world’s communities that are in the greatest need, or even to know how you might begin to judge which communities are. There’s an argument to be made, after all, that instilling the very wealthiest Westerners with a little kindness and human feeling might have a profoundly socially good effect in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater and the opportunity for social mobility more limited than it has been in a very long time.

Last night, I watched Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, and unexpectedly felt a lot of sympathy for her character’s plaintive cries that, a few months post-college, she’s still “figuring it out.” Dunham’s character seems to do that in extraordinarily different ways to the ones I’ve chosen, but her desperate pleas for just a little more time really do seem like a generational thing. There is so very much wrong in the world that every problem is an urgent problem, and even people like me have cuts to humanities departments right and left to worry about. Yet I sometimes feel as if all that 22-year-old college graduates can think about is how overwhelmed they are by how unfinished they are, how ill-prepared they feel to take on the world’s problems and make their own, how wronged they feel by the adults in their lives for leaving them such a mess that they have nowhere near the right real-world skills to clean up. It’s certainly true of my friends and myself, some of whom have landed in long-term career paths but most of whom haven’t, and who a few months or a few years out of college are still having the same late-night conversations about how to spend our lives in ways that are both good and give us pleasure.

Well, in our fallen world, I don’t see a lot of people or institutions offering to help young adults figure these questions out. But I do see one, ready with its texts canonical and very much not, with its ethical questions, with its mental gymnastics, with its reserves of moral support practiced at dealing with young adults’ “quarter-life crises.” It’s the university, folks, where so many crippling ethical dilemmas are born, worked through, and hopefully made peace—but not too much peace—with. In a way, it’s a dirty job, trying to prod entitled well-to-do American kids into developing a social conscience and a sense of humanity. But someone’s got to do it, I think—otherwise the bankers keep screwing us all over, the generals keep waging war, the Lena Dunhams of this world keep making dubious choices in men instead of taking charge of their lives, and none of us is cultivating any garden at all—least of all our own.

4 thoughts on “First-World Problems; or, in Which Our Heroine Strives to Find a New Outlook on Her Middle-Class Liberal Guilt

  1. How wonderful to have found the last downmarket Edwardian resort. Sounds like a fantastic place to relax a bit–something everyone has to do, at times.

    One way to find some ground to stand on is to move from the abstract to the particular, and from the unfathomable future to the studiable past–always a comforting move for historians. And one way in which you could do that would be to visit the ACLS website and have a look at the Haskins Lectures on “A Life of Learning” by–say–Peter Brown, Natalie Zemon Davis and Carl Schorske. All of them have a lot to say about scholarship, but all of them have been among the greatest of teachers, and they all treat teaching as a vocation–a category in which I have always found some reassurance and comfort, and one that I hope hasn’t outworn its usefulness in the world you and your agemates inhabit.

    Ah, for the days when the virtues of a life dedicated to the humanities were obvious. Whenever that was . . .

  2. Thank you! Profs Schorske’s, Zemon Davis’s, and Brown’s lectures are wonderful historical documents, and I find them both interesting and inspiring. I’m struck by how much their intellectual labor is entwined with a sense of commitment to social causes (even in Peter Brown’s case, though less obviously than in the others’) and in a belief in the improvement of their own civil society, and how the intersection of intellect and social improvement is exactly the importance of teaching to academia. It’s also comforting that even the most illustrious academic careers, of people who are known as academics and scholars more than as anything else, can’t help but be affected by and in turn affect the world outside. (Even if, I wonder, that’s just because all three spent some time at Berkeley at a critical historical moment.)

    It’s summer vacation, neither of us is on campus, your advisee has graduated and moved on, and you’re still sending her exactly the references that she needs in order to keep reading and writing. If that’s not the usefulness of teaching as vocation, I don’t know what is.

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