Some Satire for the New School Year

As students across the country prepare to return to school, those students attending Smallish College should be a little happier. “Coursework and personal relationships consistently appeared in our surveys as the top two sources of student stress,” says the college’s Acting Assistant Interim Dean of Student Social Services Felicity Fellowes. “We realized we couldn’t control who students socialized with, but that we could control the coursework. So we got rid of it.”

Indeed, students at Smallish College can now devote themselves to the gym, social media, extracurricular activities, and those troublesome personal relationships. “By being freed up to focus on their own well-being and relationships,” adds Fellowes, “we really expect to see stress levels come down and leadership skills to go way up.”

The end of coursework also permits Smallish College to save millions of dollars that would otherwise go to faculty salaries. That money can be invested in more amenities as well as more administrators. These personnel have become crucial guardians of student satisfaction, which is especially important as a recruitment tool in the current demographic slump and amid concerns about the cost of college. Fellowes explains, “Students really need to know what they are paying for at the end of the day.”

Not everyone is happy with the change. Former English professor Bartholomew Rigidson, who received his termination July 1, says, “I’m a little sad to see the students stop learning in the classroom entirely, but honestly, that simply culminates a long trend.” He went from assigning 12 books a semester in 1992 to just two last year for his Survey of American Novels, though he admits students have a lot more competing options for fun and connections than he ever had.

Rigidson also sees a silver lining in his new job stocking shelves at Target: “It gives me a lot more time to think. Besides, I no longer have to read student evaluations that talk about my teeth or my favorite sweater, and there’s not this parallel, even meaner version called ‘Rate My Stockroom Employee.’”

Now, however, students at Smallish College might have the time and happiness to create exactly that.

Fiction as Truthful Essences

In The Sciensmall gentiantific Renaissance 1450-­1630, Marie Boas Hall discusses the case of Leonhard Fuchs and his 1542 guidebook De Historia Stirpum (History of Plants.) In his preface, Fuchs writes that “there is no one who does not know that there is nothing in this life pleasanter and more delightful than to wonder over woods, mountains, plains, garlanded and adorned with little flowers and plants of various and elegant sorts, gazing intently upon them.” Presumably, Fuchs thus saw dozens, if not hundreds, of instantiations of the same kind of plant. When he and other botanists of the time hired artists to illustrate their “herbals” or “gardens of health,” however, the artist drew from but a single plant. Any defect of the individual became a misrepresentation of the type. Not until botany opted for the ideal specimen rather than an actual specimen did the guidebooks better aid identification and classification. In short, botany turned to fiction to find a clearer truth.

For a culture that seems obsessed enough with the “fun fact” and truth as “exactly what happened,” we ought to keep in mind Fuchs and his artists. Literature, especially the novel, has been a guidebook to life for so many readers because it renders not the never-to-be-repeated particular but rather the essence of people and experience, a sort of History of Humans to aid analysis and classification. Literature is designed not to call up an individual blue gentian wilting slowly on some table in the autumn of 1541, though it must alssmall sky mtno do that if it would entertain, but it enables us to name a blue gentian next time we see it and consider what makes it what it is. Fiction can organize experience in a way actual life cannot. Being someone who doesn’t scorn the didactic possibility of art, I add that organized information is easier to understand than disorganized information. Thus we have historians and physicists even if we all experience history and physics every day. We also have Fuchs, luckily for us, because his walks are probably no longer our own.