Holden Caulfield, C’est moi

By June 2, 2000April 11th, 2014The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Rachel ToorThe Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, June 2, 2000

I work in the admissions office of a highly selective private university. In the past few months, I’ve read about 1,200 applications from eager and hopeful prospective students. Now that the admissions cycle is coming to a close, I have a little time to think about what I’ve been reading.

Most colleges ask kids to write some sort of personal statement a few pages, double-spaced, explaining themselves. It’s a daunting task (try it, you’ll see). Not surprisingly, at the ripe old age of 17, many kids tend to write basically the same kinds of things: the catalog-of-achievement essay; the meaningful-activity essay (sports=life, music=life, religion=life); the community-service essay (our most well-heeled kids discover that those less fortunate can be—gasp—happy); the horrible-tragedy essay (the death or illness of a friend, relative, stranger, or even dog); and the “me” essay, where they find some way to talk about themselves (those are often the best—one of my favorites began, “My car and I are a lot alike.”).

At Duke, we also ask kids to write two additional short essays. Why do you want to go to Duke? In 99.9 percent of the cases, that question elicits a less-than-interesting response. The earnest will spit back information gleaned from our marketing materials. The gung ho will mention basketball, or more specifically The Shot, when, in 1992, Christian Laettner fired a final-second, game-winning basket in the N.C.A.A. quarterfinals. Ugh. Some applicants will cite a specific faculty member who’s doing interesting research (that’s impressive) or mention meeting an admissions officer like me who wears cool purple shoes (that’s not). I’ve argued, unsuccessfully, to get rid of this essay.

The other question is about a book. We used to ask applicants to write about their favorite book, and we got lots of book-reportish plot summaries. Those tended to be pretty painful to read. So this year, we started positing the question a little differently, asking kids to write about the way a book has “changed your understanding of yourself, the world, or other people.”

We still get lots of book-reportish plot summaries. What’s interesting is not so much how the kids write, but which books they choose to write about. It gives you insight into the workings of the 17-year-old mind. (It also tells you a lot about the reading lists for Advanced Placement English courses.)

The Catcher in the Rye never seems to lose its appeal. Kids just love it when Holden Caulfield wanders around New York City denouncing phonies. One smart kid this year wrote that, when, at age 12, he first read C.I.T.R. (you tend to start abbreviating after about the 385th essay), he really identified with Holden. Part of his maturation, he wrote, was to see that he didn’t want to be like Holden after all. Holden was, he thought, a jerk.

Many kids want to be like Jay Gatsby. An interesting signifier, I think, of our historical moment. The scrappy self-made (very rich) man is a hero. I don’t know how they are teaching A.P. English classes, but a lot of kids seem to be missing the boat, at least in the harbor of East and West Egg. I went back and reread The Great Gatsby again this year, because I started to doubt my own memory of it. Gatsby the hero? I wasn’t misremembering the book; they were misreading it.

Some students go for novels of cultural identity. Many Asian-American kids write about The Joy Luck Club; a number of Jewish applicants write about The Chosen or Night. A large group of Asian Indians write about Siddhartha. Then there are those who choose to write about novels of nonidentity (white kids write gee-whiz essays about Native Son, Invisible Man, and any of a number of Toni Morrison books). A lot write about Huck Finn. This year, a valedictorian from California wrote that when he finally read Twain for himself, he realized that his mother had edited it heavily to eliminate the “racism” when she had read it to him at bedtime. It was a different book, he said.

Into Thin Air is huge. No surprise: It’s a great story and appeals understandably to risk-taking teenagers. A Prayer for Owen Meany has long been a big hit. THE 17-YEAR-OLD CROWD LOVES TINY OWEN MEANY AND HIS CONTEMPORARY MORALITY TALE. Kids seem to learn about Vietnam from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and about the Civil War from Cold Mountain. The fact that they think they are learning about feminism from Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a man, kind of baffles me. Not, I think, a feminist text. Go figure.

All in all, a pretty unsurprising list. However, for the past couple of years, one book has been popping up with a frequency that astonishes me. Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson has been atop the best-seller list for about a bezillion weeks—over two years, in fact. It also seems to have found its way onto the A.P. reading list, and to have inspired thousands of high-school students, both boys and girls.

And that, I think, tells us something about their understandings of friendship, love, and mortality.

“Who is Morrie Schwartz and why, by the end of the night, are so many of you going to care about him?” Ted Koppel intoned on Nightline five years ago. Morrie Schwartz was a professor of sociology at Brandeis, who was dying of A.L.S., Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The touching human-interest show—the first of three—caught the attention of the Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom, who had been a student at Brandeis some 20 years before, and had been particularly devoted to Morrie. When he found out that his old professor was dying, Albom began making a weekly pilgrimage from Detroit to Morrie’s home, in Newton, Mass., for what his book calls “one last class.”

On the whole, Tuesdays With Morrie is pretty innocuous stuff. Morrie becomes something of a philosopher. He chooses to go gentle, if public, into that good night, determined to leave a legacy of words. Sometimes he’s merely a quoter: “A wise man named Levine said it right. He said, ‘Love is the only rational act.’” He repeats “the line he believed in like a prayer,” from Auden: “Love each other or perish.” But he also delights in coming up with aphorisms, which tend to be about death. The one quoted most often by kids is: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

Unlike a more famous but never-seen-on-TV aphorist, Morrie is not interested in creating an Ubermensch. Yeah, he does want to change his former student. Mitch is a product of his generation, a late-millennial Everyman. “What happened to me?” he keeps asking. “I traded lot of dreams for a bigger paycheck, and I never realized I was doing it.” Forget about the Ubermensch, says Morrie. He just wants Mitch to be a mensch.

That is, I think, what appeals. Kids today want to grow up to be Good People. They are seeing the work-oriented, success-driven world of their parents, and they’re rejecting it. (Or, at least, they think they should reject it—they still can’t help feeling the pull of that Gatsbyesque life.)

After we had admitted one student, I met with her and commended her for writing a heartbreakingly beautiful essay about her family. She replied that I now know more about her than her parents do: They work all the time, and she never sees them. She doesn’t want to be that way.

Even though many of these 17-year-olds have already started computer-consulting businesses, they reject the materialism—let’s face it, the greed—of Mitch Albom’s and my own generation. They have no patience for the grunge, the slacker mentality, the sloth of Generation X. The 20-something dot-com crowd is too shallow for them. Pierced and tattooed, that group is missing a little spiritual something.

Kids who read Morrie in their A.P. English classes, and write about it on their college applications, are desperately searching for meaning. That may be why, for many of our applicants—and for students on many college campuses—organized religion is gaining popularity as an extracurricular activity. Kids are seeking clarity. With Mitch as his Plato, chronicling his last days, Morrie’s voice comes through loud and clear. This book is just about right for 17-year-old minds and souls: In our agonistic, antagonistic culture, with widespread violence and competition in just about every facet of life, Morrie’s gentleness is appealing.

If kids weren’t finding Morrie so “meaningful,” I would never have read it; I’d certainly never recommend it to a grownup. I find it unbearably hokey, and Mitch not a particularly bright student (I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to admit him to Duke). It bothers me a little that there isn’t a smarter, sharper version of this book. I don’t have a generic problem with it; I like the genre (sort of). It’s covert self-help, palatable personal growth. Kind of an end-of-the-90’s Gift From the Sea or Letters to a Young Poet.

To be sure, most of Morrie’s lessons are unassailable. Love each other or perish? Why not? What I don’t like is that there seems to be so little discussion — either in the hoopla about the book or in the essays of our applicants—of intimate relations across gender, or of sexuality and how to be a good person in a romantic relationship. Both Mitch and Morrie have wives. Both of their wives remain shadow figures in the book. There’s a lot of discussion about loving one’s friends; not a lot about loving your lover. The fact that Morrie is dying makes it reasonable to assume that sexuality is not foremost in his mind. But these guys are talking about the meaning of life here. How come they don’t ever talk about sex?

Maybe that, too, is part of the appeal. This is a safe book. It doesn’t upset any assumptions about what is important. Love, friendship, family, long walks, dancing, good food: There’s nothing risky here. Sure, it’s a little unsettling for Mitch, a sportswriter, to touch another man, to hold Morrie and to kiss him the way Morrie wants to be held and kissed. But it’s like kissing your Dad; again, it’s safe.

It would be less safe if these two men had, in the course of their discussion of the meaning of life, ventured into the realm of intimate sexual relationships. How to be a man—in connection with a woman or with another man. Now that would be interesting. I find myself wondering if such a discussion would make the book more, or less, appealing to all those 16- and 17-year-olds. Somehow, I think it’s the simplicity — in harsher moments, I think the simple-mindedness—of this book that makes it so popular. Love each other or perish. ‘Nuf said.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled at the idea of teaching young boys the importance of friendship. (I think the lesson comes easier to girls.) And of teaching them the awesome beauty of a mentoring relationship; certainly everyone in academe knows how good that can be (when it’s good, it’s very very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid). I just wish that, in the course of teaching kids this stuff, we could find ways to teach them how to speak across gender and to speak about sexuality.

In general, as a culture, we’re not so good at speaking across gender and about sexuality. I suppose I’m waiting for a bestseller that hasn’t yet been written. We may not be ready for such a book. When it finally comes along, I fully expect that there will be lots of college-application essays written about it.

In the meantime, I guess these kids will continue to read about Tuesdays with Morrie. And we’ll continue to read what they think about it.