“Clearly, Milton’s verse is self-conscious. It drips with a hyperawareness of the canon and an unbearably cultivated ethos. His semantic curation wouldn’t be out of place in the Louvre.”
You sit, dumbfounded. Trusty old Imposter Syndrome kicks in. Am I supposed to be here? Your classmate speaks so fluently, so persuasively. And look at the professor! She’s nodding, writing something down like it will be the subject of her next book. And look at the proud orator. So smug. And then there’s me — I can’t even tell if Satan or God is talking.
On your way out of seminar, you — always the good sport — congratulate your peer on their stellar performance. “Ha! Thanks. I haven’t even opened the book!” And then it hits you like the realization that maybe Paradise Lost is a love letter to Satan. You realize that you can never trust anyone — ever.
We come to Yale to train. Some of us study the electrochemical impulses of the eye until our vision goes blurry, others sketch and re-sketch the next piece in our portfolio until our hands are black and blue with pencil. Others study books, become lawyers arguing about the intentions of the author’s unconscious. We make big claims about big books, arguing that we know even more about “Anna Karenina” than Tolstoy himself. We watch worlds rise, fall and fold in on themselves, and then we stand around to play amongst the wreckage.
But sometimes it feels like the game is dangerous. We are supposed to be in college to acquire knowledge — not the skills that make us look like we know something when we don’t. How many of us have studied for a test and then promptly forgotten all of the material or written an essay on a book we didn’t read? It seems like of all of us, the artists can’t very well fake a piece for their studio class. I think they are the lucky ones.
I should say that I don’t write this piece to drone on about academic dishonesty. I’m writing to shed light on something worse: performance. We have all become such skilled persuaders and masters of the performative craft. We convince our professors that we really understand how the European Union functions and our classmates that we can comprehend Wordsworth — even when we haven’t done the reading.
This will all serve us quite well when most of us go into consulting. By the way, I’m not trying to criticize the industry. In fact, I’m a child of consultants. But my parents are quick and honest to say, in their wise old age, that consulting isn’t much more than a daily performance in the same uncomfortable costume. I get the sense that the best consultants, the ones with summer homes on Long Island and comfortable retirement funds, were the kids who didn’t read the book.
It should be scary to see that our world doesn’t always reward the most honest efforts. In fact, it seems like we are ready to reward just about anything that looks like honesty. It should be scarier to think that Yale is complicit, that we pay money to study facts we won’t remember, write lofty cover letters about overstated projects we didn’t really “spearhead” and preach about a book some of us don’t even deign to buy.
I could offer optimistic conclusions about how, if the world is one big performance, all we have for certain is the moment. I could make a last-ditch plea for mindfulness or the beauty of focusing on a single word in a great book. Maybe the conclusion is that Yale’s expectations are not realistic and that we should all just chill out. But I’m not even sure that’s the answer.
I think no matter what we do, the nature of words and shared experiences is to lose something in translation. Most of my classmates are lovely and hardworking. They read the book and don’t speak when they haven’t. I trust these people because they are willing to be more than the story they’ve told the world about themselves. I might not always be in awe of their brilliance, but at least I know they are real. And there is something brilliant about that, too.
ELLA ATTELL is a first year in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .