The Survivor’s-Guilt Guide to College

Survival is the least of my desires.

–Dorothy Allison

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It’s that time of year again: Sultry heat punctuated by thunderstorms, back-to-school charity drives at church . . . and the publication of endless “college survival guides” for incoming freshmen.

At first glance, this clichéd phrase might seem a bit overstated. College isn’t exactly the ascent of Everest, is it? And advice like, “Don’t sleep through your classes” and, “Pack a selection of warm- and cold-weather clothes” does not really seem to warrant the drama of the word “survival.”

But I’ve been on a year-long kick of reading college novels, both novels about professors and novels about students. And in among the themes I expected to find — the attempted creation and inevitable defeat of a tolerant, liberal utopia, for example; or the humiliation of reason by forces ranging from sex (Philip Roth’s hysterical short novel The Breast) to ancient religion (Donna Tartt’s sublime, lurid Secret History) — one entirely unexpected theme emerged.

Many of the college novels I read, especially those from the student perspective, bore a theme of survivor’s guilt. It’s hard to list examples without implying too much about the plotlines, but novels from 1965’s The Sterile Cuckoo (which became a 1969 movie starring Liza Minnelli) to 2004’s bestselling intellectual mystery The Rule of Four feature survivors mourning those who didn’t make it out of the undergraduate years alive or intact. I joked that one novel, Hugh Kennedy’s 1993 Everything Looks Impressive, was basically The Sterile Cuckoo rewritten with class war and lesbians. Even Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (which I wrote about for Inside Catholic here), which might be described as the ultimate science-fiction college novel, is an elegiac investigation of the strange fate of its hero, Joseph Knecht.

And looking back on my own college years, I started to understand why this theme recurred. It’s all too easy to think of friends who left college far more shipwrecked than I realized at the time. In the ten years since I graduated, I’ve done my own sorting through the wreckage.

The reasons people crack, at or after college, can be fairly banal: drugs and booze and sex and first love gone wrong. Some of these can even be addressed, sort of, by your average college survival guide. They all tell you to drink in moderation, and all the religious ones tell you to keep your pants zipped. They give you lots of advice about connecting with adults: Go to office hours! Check in with a counselor if you start feeling shaky! Call your parents! Most of that is good advice, as far as it goes, and I even did some of it myself. I left college much more appreciative of my parents and my home than I had been back in freshman year.


But sometimes the “survival guide” style of advice seems designed to minimize the danger of the college experience by minimizing its intensity. The Web site Busted Halo ran a survival guide in 2008; it’s a mixed bag, with some very helpful and pointed advice, but it also cautions: “Be generous with your friendship but stingy with your trust.” That seems like equivocation to me; “friendship” without trust is mere companionship.

But the guide’s advice could have been shaped by the very college novels I was reading. One of the fascinating things about the genre is that friendship and romance are similarly dangerous, similarly intense, similarly sources of insight and personal transformation and shattering pain and regret. But surely the fact that friendship, like all love, can end in betrayal and hurt is not a reason to hold the fast friends of college at arm’s length.

On the one hand, yes, you need to be aware that friends may change your life as much as lovers; on the other hand, most of my closest friendships have been things I woke up in one day, having incurred obligations to people I loved dearly at some point when I wasn’t looking. And that “jumping in at the deep end” approach to friendship is also valid, as long as you’re willing to make the sacrifices to try to make a friendship work even when the friend is perhaps not the sturdiest of boats with the soundest of compasses.

There’s more than one way to “do” college. Going to college to get a pre-professional education, or to get a credential, is a necessary evil of our time. But going to college to get a liberal-arts education is inherently dangerous, and today, it’s also inherently uprooting and disruptive, a force for chaos in the lives of those who pursue truth or beauty in the collegiate setting. There is no way to make it easily survivable.

In The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon argues that the decay of traditional institutions has contributed to the rise of depression. Although he notes (and I agree with him), “I love this century,” he goes on to write:

The climbing rates of depression are without question the consequence of modernity. The pace of life, the technological chaos of it, the alienation of people from one another, the breakdown of traditional family structures, the loneliness that is endemic, the failure of systems of belief (religious, moral, political, social — anything that seemed once to give meaning and direction to life) have been catastrophic.

Solomon’s solutions are far too “all sources of meaning are equivalent” for me, but he has put his finger on one major reason the college or liberal-arts experience can be so shattering for some, so renewing and grounding for others. College simultaneously uproots us and offers us a host of new possibilities, new and entirely unexpected ways to understand ourselves. College sharply enhances the modern sense of alienation — and, by offering contact with premodern and postmodern ways of living, by offering contact with ancient and living traditions and institutions, may provide a partial cure for that loneliness.


I’m reminded of the friend who stopped me as we were walking past the main library my senior year, pointed up, and said, “Look at those.”

“Look at what?”

“The niches.”

And I recognized those strange architectural features on the library: the same ones from church. But at church, saints and prophets stood in the niches; the college niches were all empty. The university left students to fill the niches on our own, and only some of us were able to do so.

The contemporary university reinforces and even privileges rootlessness and the rejection of home. The resulting sense of being out on an endless sea of possibility can be immensely liberating and intellectually fruitful. It can open us up to alternatives to the rationalist liberal project. It can open us up to the weirdest and most intense manifestations of Christianity. College chaplains should perhaps think of their task not (or not primarily) as helping the kids stay in touch with their religious and familial roots, since those roots may themselves be shallow or withered, but as guiding kids to a future vocation and deep love of Christ.

College survival guides tend to talk as if the goal is to leave college intact: the same person you were before, only smarter. But for those of us who come to college already aware of incredible inadequacy in ourselves, or who discover that inadequacy (everyone has it!) sometime during the college experience, maybe we need to actively try to break through our own protective shields. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

I don’t want to downplay the dangers of leaving college broken; I’ve seen too many people break in ways that weren’t sublime, weren’t redemptive, but were simply ugly and sad. The survivor’s-guilt college novels might, by outlining the wide array of ways in which college can break us, help us discern which will make us bear fruit.


  • Eve Tushnet

    Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog and She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don’t read for the art reviews.

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