The Childe’s Tale

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, April 19, 2002

Having lived nearly all my life with at least one foot somewhere near a university, I am an enthusiastic imbiber of academic novels. From A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch to David Lodge and James Hynes, I soak up these genre books, where the characters are recognizably drawn, at least as types. I know what to expect. Star professors and working-stiff teachers; deans and chairs and adjuncts; trailing spouses and partners-in-affairs.

But something hit me recently: Rarely are there any children. The real-life characters who live real academic lives often do have children, after all. But rugrats who pop up in academic novels are usually just props. Imagine a Wide Sargasso Sea or The Wind Done Gone version of one of these books. The same story, from an academic brat’s point of view.

Children of academics have a funny relationship to the academy and even, perhaps, to the world. They grow up with the trappings of social class — access to Culture, appreciation of the Arts, a broad and humanistic outlook — without, for the most part, the money, prestige, and real-world power that children of other professional parents often have. Where those parents go to work surrounded by reasonably like-minded colleagues, children of academics have peers whose backgrounds, lives, and, let’s face it, values, are quite different.

I am the child of an academic. Not a high-powered fancy scholar; no, my father taught in the English department of a large state university, just a regular-army kind of academic, a foot soldier in the battles of academe. I grew up in the halcyon days before the so-called culture wars, in an earlier time when there was, in academic communities, an air of tolerance and progressive values often at odds with the climate of the town.

The 1970s households of most of my friends, also children of academics, were similar to mine. Built-in bookshelves were de rigueur; the daily paper was The New York Times, even though New York City was hundreds of miles, physical and psychic, away. Sometimes The New York Review of Books made an appearance. (The Wall Street Journal usually did not.) Walls were adorned with art brought home from overseas sabbaticals. Kitchens invariably smelled of something other than casseroles cooked with cream-of-mushroom soup: Korean wontons, perhaps, or veal cordon bleu. And the dinner table was a locus of discussion for the expression, if not necessarily the free exchange, of ideas. Our houses were often the sites of high-school parties, because our parents tended to be tolerant of sex or drugs or, at least, rock ‘n’ roll. (They may have been less forgiving of white bread, religious fundamentalism, and patriotic gore.)

There was zero tolerance for not taking academic work seriously. Asking for parental help on a homework assignment was complicated. On the one hand, it was a way of making a connection and courting familial brownie points. On the other, you couldn’t expect to receive a direct answer to a simple question, which was frequently used as a springboard for a seminar. Some of our parents, it seemed, couldn’t separate parenting from teaching. The response to a proud offering was typically along the lines of, “It’s a good start.” The finished piece often incorporated the ideas and, hard for a kid to recognize, the biases of the resident academic.

We grew up ingesting the work world of our parents, whether it was talking about Freud as if he were a member of the family or asking the dog to sit en francais. We were comfortable conversing with grown-ups, because grown-ups expected us to be able to converse. Or, at least, to listen. By listening, we achieved a level of passive knowledge about subjects and ideas beyond the ken of what was expected of our peers and, especially, by our teachers. Precociousness was an obvious byproduct.

And then there were the values issues. We may have been exposed to endless conversations about PBS miniseries, but rarely heard talk about money (except that it was tight). We may have been embarrassed by purchasing our clothes at discount stores, but when it came to buying a piano, we got the best. Playing sports was not applauded; practicing the violin was. There was a general disdain for business, a snubbing of those with the gift of gab (once out of the academic element, our parents had little readily accessible small talk), and an impatience with salespeople (we relied on Consumer Reports). Of course, there was a concomitant — if abstract — respect for the laboring classes. Many of our fathers, indeed, tried their hands at carpentry, building additions to the remote and ramshackle second homes that were our summer destinations.

The friends whose parents were doctors, lawyers, or businesspeople tended to buy nicer clothes. Their cars didn’t always have foreign names. When they went on vacation, it was to Disneyland, or maybe Hilton Head. The children of academics tended not to be taken on tourist trips. “Tourist trap” was the sobriquet for places that sold souvenirs. It was difficult for us to experience Americana without a sense of irony. Leisure time was not cultivated.

All of that made us stand out. In my hometown, we rubbed shoulders in school with the children of farmers and factory workers, as well as doctors and lawyers. Some of our friends’ fathers wore overalls, some wore suits to work. Mothers got their hair “done.” We saw those families on TV; we did not see our own. Jews in my town tended to be affiliated with the college. Ditto for single-parent families. When it came time for us to go to college, many of us applied to fancy private schools instead of the state universities in the system that employed our parents.

But there’s something more fundamental, I think, that set us apart. Early on in James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, the protagonist describes being told by his undergraduate mentor to go to graduate school: Scholarship, he’s promised, is a meritocracy. Some of my school buddies, the sons of shoe repairers, the daughters of workers in a typewriter factory, were replete with a ball-busting work ethic. For their part, the offspring of the upper middle class were confident that their lives would follow the comfortable path already trodden by their parents. We, however, held to a quaint notion of meritocracy that permeated the zeitgeist of the children of academics. This we accepted without irony.

I am not sure that it served us well. We may have looked like arrogant underachievers when compared with our hard-working, working-class peers. We may have been led to believe that being smart was enough — and certainly morally superior to being rich. Busy work was something we would not brook; talent and intelligence were believed to trump dedication and diligence, and money, every time. We were bored by high school, superciliously suspecting that our parents were smarter than our teachers. Believing life was a meritocracy, we were in for a big surprise.

I find that now, as a grown-up, I am drawn to fellow children of academics. Many of us are hanging around the fringes of universities. Some have followed our parents into the professoriate, others have gone into quasiacademic endeavors like scholarly publishing. Some write, pace Martin Amis and David Auburn. There are, of course, those who fled and high-tailed it straight for the Peace Corps or Vista, but many have, eventually, made their way back to toil in the mind fields.

I sometimes think that our most-entrenched characteristic is our discomfort with trying to fit into the fluid, if still defined, American class system. Like most children, we have some perspective on our parents. We know we’re not working class (even if we do manual labor), yet we’re not comfortable with being middle class. Never having learned to value money, we don’t usually pursue it rigorously. If, somehow, we are financially successful, we are apologetic about it.

Perhaps my experience, and that of my peers, is no longer representative. I look at the children of current faculty members. Some are pierced and tattooed, clad in Goth black and doing well in school. Some I see working at the local bagel shop, having opted out of college. Those who really want to rebel against their parents are going into banking. Perhaps being the child of an academic no longer sets one apart to the same degree. Perhaps the culture at large has adopted some of the values of the academy — the gap between academic fetishes like ethnic food and sensible sandals and the rest of the world has closed, at least. The strange and esoteric stuff sought out by professorial types has filtered both down and up the stratifications of the American class system. Perhaps.

The rugrat perspective on dinnertime discussions of postcolonial discourse, the economic development of Latin America, or the matriarchal behavior of prosimian primates would probably not make for a great novel of ideas, which is what, of course, academic novels must be. But those shadowy characters, those small plot props, those pilgrims of the academic landscape — my hunch is that they, too, have a tale to tell, distinct, varied, and perhaps a little odd: “And he began to speak, with right good cheer, His tale anon.”