Charlotte Simmons' world - and my own (National Post, January 29, 2005)

Master satirist of the American Zeitgeist Tom Wolfe has previously tackled the swarming social habitats of modern New York and Atlanta, and the cultural forces that shaped them. In his latest blockbuster, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe explores American campus life in the postmodern age.

His point of entry into fictional Dupont University -- apparently an amalgam of Duke, Harvard, Yale and Stanford -- is Charlotte Simmons, a brilliant, rigorously Christian scholarship student from a near-inaccessible North Carolina mountain hamlet. Charlotte's isolated upbringing has hitherto kept her pure in body and spirit, protected from the left-wing ideological toxins that have transformed Western culture. Like time travellers from the '50s, readers see Dupont through her shocked eyes.

Naively, Charlotte anticipates pursuing high culture in the sacred groves of academe as Victorian social critic Matthew Arnold described it: "the disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."

Outwardly, Dupont University conforms to her fantasy. A gracious air of permanence, soaring Gothic towers and decorous quads reflect the values of a bygone era. Life inside, however, reveals a culture dumbed down to the lowest possible denominator. The campus is a sexual, intellectual and spiritual bordello, where Charlotte's modest sensibilities are assaulted at every turn (best exemplified by a scene of excruciating sensory torment set in a coed bathroom).

Charlotte's anachronistic ideals are ignored, mocked or exploited by others: first by her spoiled, anorexic roommate (Charlotte is routinely "sexiled" when the roomie "hooks up"); then by macho frat boys seeking sex without emotional reciprocity; and finally even by effete intellectual peers. The life of the mind takes a back seat to obsessive sexuality.

At Dupont, Political Correctness reigns. Women and gays command the hustings. But the multicultural mantras of Diversity don't produce the vaunted rainbow coalition of theory. Rather, according to an earnest student (referring to various campus ethnic groups), "every other group is, like, prejudiced against your group, and no matter what they say, they're only out to take advantage of you, and you should have nothing to do with them -- unless you're white, in which case all the others are not prejudiced against you, they're like totally right, because you really are racist, even if you don't know it."

Futilely, Charlotte seeks refuge from the obscene language ("f---patois," according to Wolfe's neologism) and behaviours that surround her. A friend counsels surrender and acceptance: "College is the only time in your ... adult life when ... you can really experiment, and ... when you leave ... everybody's memory, like, evaporates ... It's like amnesia, totally, ... and you leave college exactly the way you came in, pure as rainwater."

A novel set in a previous era called I Am Barbara Kay would have told a very different story indeed. I wasn't poor, rural or Christian like Charlotte Simmons when I studied English Literature at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, but I shared her intellectual dream. Unlike poor Charlotte, though, my expectations were met -- even exceeded.

From my secondary-school cohort, only 4% of Canada's population went on to university, fewer women than men. We understood university education to be a privilege, not a right. We felt ... anointed. So, far from being a four-year "amnesia" from morality, university was understood to be training for enlightened payback to society.

We studied literature, not nihilistic race and gender theories. We engaged with, and appreciated, works of art that stirred and changed us, rather than deconstructing "texts" with detached irony. The magnificent cultural achievements of Western civilization were gifts to the world, not its bane. Cultural history meant a continuous narrative of events, ideas and movements, not the atomized voices of "sorrowful minorities" suppressed by Euro- and phallo-centric "hegemons." We accumulated knowledge, not morally equivalent "ways of knowing."

Were my profs for or against Richard Nixon or JFK? I don't know: Current politics never arose. Civility of discourse and comportment reigned in public spaces. Our common rooms were filled with cigarette smoke, true, but also with wide-ranging discussions on any and all subjects, uncensored by, in Robert Fulford's words, the "coalition of the offended."

Special deference was paid, not to jocks, as at Charlotte's Dupont U, but to fellow students who dazzled us with their wit and debate skills, both men and women. My own icon was fellow University College student Barbara Amiel, one year ahead, whose footsteps I dogged in slavish admiration, hoping some of her brilliance might rub off on me.

The sexes boarded separately, and women had the privacy they crave. Casual sex was one choice, sexual modesty a respected alternative. I was an individual, not a member of an oppressed group; my (nearly all) male professors and male fellow students never patronized or "objectified" me or the women writers we studied.

Most students cite general self-improvement as their principal reason for attending university, according to a 1992 StatsCan survey of 36,000 students. But as a poet said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing/Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring." Wolfe's novel ends with Charlotte still thirsting from her "little learning," and diminished.

My generation drank deep -- and improved. Is this the kitschy glow of nostalgia or False Memory Syndrome? No, it's rational sentimentality -- mine really was Canada's Golden Era of Humanism in higher education.

© National Post 2005