Curse of the Striving Class

Ella: Nobody’s staying here forever. We’re all leaving.
Emma: We are?
Ella: Yes. We’re going to Europe.
Emma: Who is?
Ella: All of us.
Emma: Pop too?
Ella: No. Probably not.
Emma: How come? He’d like it in Europe, wouldn’t he?
Ella: I don’t know.
Emma: You mean just you, me, and Wes are going to Europe? That sounds awful.
Ella: Why? What’s so awful about that? It could be a vacation.
Emma: It’d be the same as it is here.
Ella: No it wouldn’t! We’d be in Europe. A whole new place.
Emma: But we’d all be the same people.

Curse of the Starving Class, Act I, by Sam Shepard

Ella’s vision of selling the family’s burned-out, fallow Texas farm and moving the family to Europe in the hope of transforming themselves is brought quickly to earth by her daughter, who realizes that no matter where they go and what they surround themselves with, they’re still going to be the same feral, unhappy, directionless people they are now. Immersing yourself in high culture doesn’t change the essential “you” formed long before you even knew where Europe is, whether you’re Shepard’s cursed family or Daisy Miller.

This passage reminds me of the way so many people ache to scale the ivy walls separating them from colleges and universities considered to be the ne plus ultra of life. So much is attached to achieving this goal that it becomes a genuinely transformative experience: anyone who enters changes fundamentally simply by virtue of being among the elect. It is Ella’s dream to go to Europe and be surrounded by culture, art, and all the blessings of the Old World. She believes in a kind of transubstantiation that will literally erase the past and ensure the ease and comfort of the future while the individual is purified into something better.

But Emma is more realistic. She senses that no matter where you go, there you are. We take our “selves” with us: no matter what we surround ourselves with, we are essentially the same people. In that sense, no experience can be truly transformative, it can only be an accretion on the personality we already have. While this may sound overly deterministic, I think it says a lot about the passion for elite admission.

All of this yearning for the Ivies has much more to do with class and status than with academics. They are seen as annealing furnaces where the dross of one’s own background can be burned away and a new person can be formed. Aspirations to these institutions are seldom about their academic challenges; they are about social and cultural needs: “making contacts,” “meeting the best and the brightest,” “assuring one’s future,” and so on. We see who comes out of these institutions and think our kids can do that if only we had the access, forgetting that before there was college, there was a person and a personality.

At certain levels, the need to attend certain colleges is almost palpable, with parents lamenting that their child might have to attend Tufts instead of Brown. It’s that kind of hair splitting among strivers that would drive Emma crazy; there’s no real difference and the essentials of the individual are the same and will be, regardless. This doesn’t mean that individuals can’t change in a general sense. They can become moody or be inspired by a great teacher, but the basics of their personalities are set well before college; the institution can only claim to have provided the externals. They are accidentals, not essentials; necessary but not sufficient. What students do and where they go with what they have is largely up to them.

However, in our insecurity, our supposedly classless society, we continue striving to be purified into the realms of gold. This condition characterizes certain strata more than others, including academics, who suffer from an almost crippling status anxiety when confronted with extra-academic situations, especially regarding their children; the newly rich, who doubt their own positions and who need validation (Henry James and Edith Wharton would recognize them instantly); and ambitious new arrivals who see acceptance as a shortcut to the American upper class.

But Emma’s right: They’ll still be the same people. That is, their essential personalities will not be transformed, just the externalities, the accidentals that accrete to us as we move through life. Students/children may try on new roles, take risks, and change from the person we knew before, but at a fundamental level, character stays constant. It may be covered with layers of new behaviors, but the core persists. Con artists are not made any more honest by attending Yale, nor are the truly devout plunged into profanity by Cornell. And no one institution can claim to be better or worse than any other on those terms.

Those who think that only certain colleges and universities can effect elemental changes in their children and in the process vault them into the upper classes labor in vain. All colleges change their students, but none can truly transform them. Releasing oneself from this fallacy is the first step toward a greater equanimity.