As they sipped coffee and nibbled on toast this past Sunday, Americans across the country read the work of Nicholas Handler ’09.
The New York Times Magazine published Handler’s essay, “The Posteverything Generation,” on Sept. 30 as part of the student’s award for winning the magazine’s college essay contest. About 600 college students entered the contest, which asked contestants to respond to historian Rick Perlstein’s article “What’s the Matter With College?”
The article investigated what Perlstein perceived as a lack of social activism on college campuses in recent years. He attributed this phenomenon to the Internet and its ability to breach the traditional seclusion of the college environment.
“Perlstein’s article rehashed the basic critique of our generation: that we are entirely focused on entering the labor market and getting the right job,” Handler said. “The older generation believes we have no social conscience, or if there is social conscience, it is shallow and negligible.”
Handler said his winning essay employed postmodern theory to respond to what he saw as a misconception not only by Perlstein, but by America’s older generation as a whole. Handler said he hoped to prove that his generation’s activism is no less meaningful simply because it predominantly takes place on the Internet.
“[Our method of revolution] is in the rapidly developing ability to communicate ideas and frustration in chat rooms instead of on the streets, and channel them into nationwide projects striving earnestly for moderate and peaceful change,” Handler wrote in his essay.
Jim Schachter, deputy editor of the New York Times Magazine, said that out of the essays submitted, Handler’s was particularly memorable because of the originality of his approach and its clever characterization of today’s youth as “posteverything.”
“Of the 600 or so essays entered in our contest, Nick Handler’s stood out for the clarity of its thinking and the careful, powerful use of language it demonstrated,” he said in an e-mail. “Those written by Nick and by the runners-up really jumped out of the big pile of essays we sifted through.”
The essay has also enjoyed its share of criticism, including in the “comments” section immediately below Handler’s essay on the New York Times Magazine Web site.
“Self-conciously blase, college-aged literati indeed,” the first post read. “This won? Yawn.”
Other comments poked fun at Handler’s Ivy League pedigree and what some called his “pretentious opinions” and “sheltered life at Yale.” Several comments were critical of Handler’s argument that the Internet is this generation’s forum for activism, but Handler said the comments themselves prove his reasoning.
“I think that simply by virtue of having such an angry dialogue on the Internet many of these people did, in a way, show that it’s a place where a huge number of ideas are exchanged,” he said in an e-mail.
Comments that praised Handler’s writing style and social commentary were just as numerous.
Michal Benedykcinski ’09, Handler’s close friend, said most of the negative comments came from people who did not understand Handler’s ironic tone.
“The biggest misunderstanding of all was that they didn’t recognize the sarcasm of the term ‘posteverything generation,’ ” he said. “A lot of people who posted thought he was just a college kid who goes to an Ivy League university and doesn’t know much about life, but that’s not true at all.”
Although Handler said he was surprised when he was chosen as the winner, his friends say they were not nearly as astonished. Yasemin Tarhan ’09 said Handler’s writing is eloquent and witty, so she was not surprised when Handler won the contest.
“He is always the one to make the most profound jokes and wittiest comments, and he is so smart with words,” she said.
Handler said he has received support from current and former friends, Yale professors, high school English teachers and new Facebook friends from across the country.