Monday, October 10, 2005

I Am Charlotte Simmons: Class, Poverty and Education

I'm about a hundred pages into Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel based on Wolfe's observations and reflections from an excursion across the American University campus. The picture, so far, is a rather disquieting one. According to Wolfe, contemporary university life is more about getting laid that getting an education. The hedonistic character of our universities set forth in Simmons is striking. Striking because of the failure of the American appetite for happiness. Apparently, students are not too interested in the things of life, culture, truth, meaning, the future of humanity and the world. As C. S. Lewis put it, "They are far too easily satisfied."

However, there is a shimmer of hope in the character of Charlotte Simmons, whose redneck roots are humiliatingly exposed by her roommate's upper class unction. Although the first 100 pages reveals rampant decadence as a driving force in university life, they also sketch a picture of hope for the 'down and out' demographic in America. The subtle message might be, "If Charlotte Simmons can make it to Dupont, anybody can." You see, Simmons is bright but poor, qualified but 'uncultured'. Charlotte concieves of 'eating out' as a trip to the "Sizzlin Skillets." Co-ed bathrooms horrify her (rightly so). She wears keds when everyone else is wearing flip-flops. The point Wolfe is getting at is that the poor, the underpriveleged go to the Harvards too. Ivy league doesn't mean class distinction.

However, the only problem with his point is that statistics show that of the 146 select colleges, only 3% of the student body come from Charlotte's economic bracket, which raises some interesting questions. Is poverty next to stupidity? Or does uppity flee from humility? Is Wolfe's novel a farce, fiction, fact or the future? What's the point here? Can anybody go to Harvard, provided they make the grades? Apparently not, since a large portion of Harvard students are admitted on clout and class, not grade and gumption. What's the future of the American University...of students and professors alike? I guess it's hopelessly tied up with the future of I Am Charlotte Simmons? We'll see...