The Nostalgia of the College StudentPrint
By Paula Marantz Cohen
I recently taught a nonfiction writing course for undergraduates and was surprised at how many of them chose to write about their childhoods, particularly elementary school: the monkey bars, second grade reading group, playing video games at a friend’s house.
I asked them why so many of their essays dealt with this period. One student bluntly admitted that he was overwhelmed by nostalgia: “All I ever do is reminisce about grade school,” he said. “I’m, like, constantly missing that time in my life.”
Almost everyone else in the class agreed that they, too, were nostalgic for their preteen years.
Isn’t nostalgia supposed to come later, after you’ve been buffeted by life and seen a thing or two? These kids aren’t out of school yet. What was it they missed so much?
I didn’t have to think ahead about anything. Life was simple then. All I had to do was do my homework, eat dinner, and go to sleep. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I didn’t have to think about getting a job or taking tests that would decide whether I would succeed or fail. I didn’t have so much stress.
These are sad responses. My students are still children. Yet they have been prematurely stressed by life—or at least, by the prospect of life—and are already missing simpler times. I ascribe this to the difficult job market and to the expense of a college education, which makes many of these students feel that they must succeed. But I also think it has to do with a parenting style that preceded the recession. The extreme parenting that began some 30 years ago—where parents became invested to an unprecedented degree in realizing their children’s fullest potential—made those children more anxious about failure. Parents lavished so much time and money on them that it raised the stakes on their achievement. Thus, the very childhood which these students miss so much may also be where the seeds of their anxiety—and hence of their current nostalgia—were planted.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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