As summer fast approaches, students’ thoughts turn from prelims and papers to the three months of freedom ahead. For some, these months will be filled with more hard work — pre-professional internships, grueling summer courses, long hours at a job — while for others they represent an oasis of laziness and tranquility.
Everyone can agree, though, that the summer is the defining turning point in a student’s year. Since we were about five, our lives have been broken up into a cycle of school years and summers, with each break offering us the opportunity to recalibrate our priorities, interests and behavior. Needless to say, this is quite different from the view of time shared by most people — an endless, monotonous stretch broken by seasonal changes and, if you’re lucky, an occasional vacation. As young people privileged with the opportunity to spend our time learning things, we get to live a more varied life of new school years and long interregnums.
This has doubtless shaped the way we conceive ourselves. I, like many, can run down the school years of my life and identify them by the friends I hung out with, the music I listened to, the way I felt. Fifth grade was my introduction to girls (ice cream on half-day Wednesdays and notes written in gel pen) with Third Eye Blind in the background and a sense that I had to be cool. Eighth grade was all about watching American Pie and disavowing math. Freshman year of college involved dark nights listening to Arcade Fire and long talks with a certain friend beneath a tree.
If you forced me, I could probably categorize lots of these memories by calendar year. But the point is that, for most of us, our conscious lives have been dominated by the semester schedules of the institutions we’ve attended. This may have detrimental effects on our preparedness for “the real world” (whatever that means), but overall I think it’s a great thing. The endless variety of school years, with their opportunities for remaking yourself and starting afresh — not to mention the beacon of summer that shines through every dark semester — has simply made life more interesting.
But as we say goodbye to our senior friends (see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!) and await our own departure from the bosom of higher learning, it’s worth considering how else our lives have been shaped and defined by schools. On censuses and surveys, we define ourselves as “students.” Most of us spend the vast majority of our days on campus and in a place called “Collegetown.” We work day and night on schoolwork, and almost everyone we interact with daily is connected in some way to our University. If you substitute a few place names, that’s the way it’s been for over three-fourths of our lives. Is this a good or a bad thing?
The merits have already been hinted at above. As students living in a small college culture where practically everything we do and everyone we meet is related to our studies, we live an enchanted existence. People of similar inclinations and tastes are all around us; groups and organizations abound to cater to our every passion; libraries and classroom buildings designed to serve our interests surround us. Compared to the average existence, the student life is one of ease and constant stimulation.
Of course, the flip side is insularity. Aside from the few “authentic” experiences we may have had during a summer, semester or year away from the Ivory Tower (experiences which were still framed by the inevitable return to the nest), we haven’t had to do much in the way of interacting with radically different people or adhering to the priorities of a different agenda. As we stare over the cliff of graduation, some of us worry that we are little more than coddled infants whose instincts and perspicacity have been dulled by our lifelong reprieve in the academy.
There’s also the more serious issue of our dependence on institutions. Primary and secondary education is one long exercise in conformity and social engineering, and higher education may be little better. It’s hard to avoid the feeling sometimes that the University views us as customers supporting the bottom line, with outrageously priced meal plans and extortionate policies on off-campus credits being just a few incriminating examples of their exploitation. And as with any other corporation, Cornell and its peers bombard their target market with brand imagery, starting with the glossy brochures we received in high school and continuing with the emphasis on “Cornell pride” and trendily overpriced sweatshirts from the campus store. Compared to university students in other countries, who generally come to campus just for class (and are, ironically, much more politically committed in their role as students), we are a rather passive and easily manipulated bunch.
So as some of us head away for good and others count on their fingers the semesters and summers left, it’s worth considering how — psychologically and socially — we have been formed by our long lives in schools. Are we prepared for what comes next? Do we want to be? Will anything be so good again?
The questions, alas, have no easy answers. So in the time-honored tradition of students everywhere, let’s do what we always do: put them off until later and enjoy the summer.