Echoes of Lost Conversations: A Review of ‘Bright College Years’

For a novel that is smart and fun, Bright College Years, is also depressing.

It reminds us of a lost world, of what the campus experience once was but is no longer. . It’s also timely: if recent events (optimistically) portend that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the self-mockery age of higher education, then maybe Bright College Years could help serve as a model for the restructuring ahead.

Set at Yale in the 1980s,, the story tells of a gang of friends going through their four years together. For most people who went to college in that era, I suspect much will be familiar: not merely the political and cultural events that frame their experience—the novel opens with a concert by the Pretenders on the Yale campus, on the eve of Jimmy Carter’s crushing defeat by Ronald Reagan—but the particular kinds of incidents and occasional hijinks—ranging from clever to juvenile—that typically constitute four years of maturing adolescents at a residential college.

Most salient about this gang, however, is how much they talk.

A key professor who influences many of them has a sign on his office door that says, “Sit Long, Talk Much.” Already reflecting a lost art in our contemporary age of professorial indoctrination and social conformity, not to mention the social isolation imposed by smartphones, the gang indeed sits long together, face to face—in the dining hall, in dorm rooms, at the late-night snack bar, etc.—and talks, debates, banters, much. They’re smart but also young, so conversations address topics big and small, heavy and light, serious and silly. What matters is less any specific conclusion—in fact, some sustained disagreements loom large through the story creating some tension between the characters—than the mutual respect that grows through the process of genuine face-to-face dialogue. They understand that ideas are provisional, that a young person is a work in progress—and an old one too! —there is no “cancellation” here when someone floats a thought that others might find “harmful” or “offensive,” but rather “more talk,” attempts at mutual understanding and persuasion.

In the days before identity politics and political correctness took hold and stifled open discussions, people could engage in lengthy and meaningful conversations without fear. As the narrator often remarks, “Back then, you could say that.” John Stuart Mill, a staunch advocate of free speech, would likely be dismayed by the current state of campus discourse in the early twenty-first century, turning in his grave and longing to set things right.

The gang does other things, too. There’s a fair amount of drinking, smoking weed, and sex, all things that youths these days reportedly do much less of. And while such activities contribute in important ways to the college experience, the novel handles them in a balanced way.

Not all of the gang indulge or approve; some are quite skeptical of the need to “enhance” one’s experience by means of substances, and there are debates on the topic. More importantly, the main character, Jeffrey, now an adult, long having given up the drugs, looks back on them not exactly approvingly—”what I could have been,” he wonders at one point—but also not exactly with regret. “Joining the Carillon Guild,” he notes, discussing one of his quirkier extracurriculars, “was one of the best things I’ve ever done, ranking just beneath quitting drugs, itself just beneath doing drugs in the first place.”

That nails it: wherever we land in our adult versions, we take all sorts of circuitous paths to get there, and we make mistakes, and the person we are at the final destination doesn’t always look so kindly upon the many stops along the way. But all that is essential: as another character puts it—who happens to be black but comes out of the closet as a conservative by the end of the story, doing a senior thesis on Thomas Sowell of all people—the institution itself must allow us to make our mistakes and learn from them rather than dictate how to behave. Thus, both doing a thing and stopping to do the thing, can be equally valuable in creating who we become, even if, sometimes, as in this novel, we have to figure out exactly how to relate to those earlier less palatable versions of ourselves. As Jeffrey’s wife listens to his many stories with the gang, she remarks, at one point, “I have a hard time connecting you to that guy.” But so, interestingly, does he.

All that, warts included, is much healthier than the soul-destroying madness that has taken over campus in recent years—where mistakes can instantly lead to social destruction rather than serve as opportunities for self-discovery and maturation.

Personally, I would have enjoyed more scenes in the classroom. But then again, so much of what is valuable, in terms of social, emotional, and intellectual development, is what happens outside the classroom. And what classroom scenes there are are, alas, a little ominous to us who know what’s coming to campuses in the decades ahead. The key professor above is something of a 1960s-holdover radical whose aims include—surprise, surprise—the subversion of Western Civilization. Indeed, the novel chronicles Yale’s abolition of the actual major in Western Civilization in the early 1980s, attributing it to the machinations of this (fictional?) professor. With the benefit of our hindsight, one sees in this fellow, perhaps, the forward line of the infiltration of what would become the Woke movement. Forebodingly, one feels the novel is capturing the final days of an era—the end of a golden age—if not of Western Civilization itself.

Suggestion for conclusion: “In short, Bright College Years offers a fast-paced and entertaining read while delivering a profound exploration of the campus’s historical evolution. It’s a valuable addition to the current discourse on higher education.”

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  • Scott Johnson

    Scott Johnston is the author of another college-based novel, Campusland, which is also being developed for television. He is also the author of the forthcoming book All the Lovely People. Both books are published by St. Martin's Press.

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