Like other pretentious and moderately fucked-up youth of my generation, I attended an alternative high school for a period of time in the late 1980s. There, I was thoroughly steeped in the discourse of romantic intellectualism, whose primary and most seductive exponent was my English teacher, Harriet Wolff. Harriet was a then middle-aged Englishwoman with just the faintest trace of an accent who supervised courses in twentieth century literature, creative writing, and other subjects that were perfectly suited to pretentious teenagers nursed on punk rock. Under her cross-legged tutelage, I learned how to write a proper essay, how to conduct scholarly research, and how to analyze poetry, the last a skill I have long since forgotten.
I also learned the ultimate purpose of acquiring these skills, which was to one day arrive at the front gates of the university fully prepared to savour the delights of the scholarly life. These included instant camaraderie with a throng of like-minded souls, with whom I would form life-long and nicotine-fuelled friendships; sexual experimentation with a stable of lanky and bespectacled young men who were equally well-versed in continental philosophy and the arts of love; and, perhaps the most splendid delight of all, the assurance that as a humanities scholar, I would be everywhere surrounded by the intoxicating aura of Art (tm), which would breathe meaning into every fleeting moment of my defiantly godless existence.
Needless to say, when I finally arrived at the gates of the university, several years later than Harriet had hoped, I found none of these things waiting for me. Instead, I was greeted by an almost comically bureaucratic corporation whose profits derived from the production of increasingly redundant armies of “knowledge workers,” most of whom now knowledgeably serve lattés at your local Starbucks. To add insult to injury, the architectural centre of the campus was not a library or a commons but a mini-shopping mall, which sold everything from handbags to video games but could not manage to produce a drinkable cup of coffee. Feeling swindled, I promptly became a Marxist, which was both the most rational and the most romantic response to the situation I could muster.
To be fair, I did encounter a fair number of bespectacled humanities professors milling about the campus – one or two of whom had possibly been lanky young men once – but most of these were nearing retirement and seemed genuinely bewildered by the environment they worked in. One, an American-born philosophy instructor I was especially fond of, introduced himself to a class by announcing that he had been “mistrained in an earlier era” and that he felt pity for anyone sitting in the lecture hall who actually gave a damn about philosophy. “They’ll give you nothing but grief,” he said ominously, “I assure you.” Strangely, I was not.