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Pretending to Be Something Better
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Pretending to Be Something Better

College students need mentors who will show them how to be grown-ups.

Students through Sproul Plaza on the UC-Berkeley campus on March 14, 2022, in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night 

One of the many educators who tried to get me to finally, actually get serious about my academic career once called me an “indifferent student.”

I remember sitting in that meeting thinking: If only! I wasn’t indifferent to school. I craved recognition for my intelligence and erudition. Those million meetings and sternly worded letters about failing to apply myself wouldn’t have hurt so much if I had the gift of indifference. I was only pretending not to care.

Chunking along with a B average in high school would have been no problem if I had been indifferent. The real problem was that my sloth and my vanity were even more powerful than my shame. 

I was using the intelligence that kept showing up on the standardized test scores that drove counselors and teachers batty about my “potential.” It’s just that I was using it to do the absolute least amount of work possible. I could ace the classes that lined up with my interests and knowledge, but found myself forever flirting with disaster on the courses that would have required me to really try.

Imagine arriving for summer school to repeat Algebra II to try to bring up an abysmal grade but still feeling smug. Not trying had become my own perverse badge of honor. These other people were here, I thought, because they’re not that smart. “I’m here because I didn’t even try, and still managed to get a D.” 

What a jerk.

Despite my checkered academic past, Hampden-Sydney College, a red-brick Federal-style idyll in the Virginia countryside, took a chance on me. But it did so only after deferring my application for early admission to see how my next semester grades panned out. I had barely scraped into the college of my choice, but, of course, drew no wisdom from the nearness of the thing. I instead concluded that I had beaten the system.

After one semester, the system had beaten me. I was placed on “academic suspension,” flunked out after bringing the same dilettantism to my college studies that I had so carefully cultivated in high school. But the courses were much harder and the distractions, both wholesome and unwholesome, had multiplied. I wanted my college to be rigorous without understanding that it would ask the same of me.

But finally, a chink in the firmament of my self-regard through which a little light could pass. I would have preferred death to failing to win my return. I attacked the classes at the little state college up the road from my parents’ home with shameless zeal: Front row seats, hand up for every answer, course work turned in early. Straight A’s. Readmission.

So, I had finally really worked for something, but I had been caught trying. All the effort I put into pretending to be an unserious student was now in jeopardy. Who would I be, or, rather, pretend to be, when I got back to Hampden-Sydney?

Professor Jim Simms began the second term of his Western civilization classes with a brief scan of the syllabus and then an open question: “Who was responsible for the Holocaust?”

What followed was many minutes of very bright boys trying to show just how bright we were, and failing. We named every Nazi over the rank of major before we resorted to counterintuitive answers: “It was really Hindenburg’s fault … ,” “The industrialists … ,” “Churchill turned a blind eye … ,” “Stalin’s territorial ambitions …,” “The German people …”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. And he was enjoying our frustration. This guy was tough and playful at the same time. He had been a Marine. He had worked real jobs. He cussed at us. He was not impressed with our prep-school sneers.

Then Dr. Simms gave us the answer: “Charles Darwin. Because once he told people that human beings were just animals, you could exterminate them in exactly the same way you would any animal that was a nuisance. Scientific slaughter, boys.”

With that and a booming clap of his hands, he sent us out, minds racing. I don’t know if I was ever more excited for the next installment of a class as I was that afternoon walking out of Morton Hall. I wanted to argue these questions with him and my classmates endlessly. And for the next three and a half years, I did. 

I was already thinking about Jim Simms and learning to love scholarship before I heard the news last week that he had died

Watching videos of clashing protesters on campuses, each dressed up in the costume of their chosen side—keffiyehs and masks over here, fraternity shirts and Ray-Bans over there—I thought about how Dr. Simms had gotten to Hampden-Sydney.

When I arrived in the mid-’90s, there was a crew of great professors at the college, all of whom had arrived in 1968 or soon thereafter. Many were conservatives, but not all. What they had in common was a desire to flee the insanity of the campuses where they were teaching at the time. And Hampden-Sydney—all-male, founded in 1776, liberal arts, genteel, and academically rigorous—was the ultimate counter to the counterculture.

I wondered about the new generation of Jim Simmses, looking through smeared windows onto quads turned into stages for performative protest by students egged on by adults off campus. I wondered how many would say what he had said more than 50 years ago: “Screw this.” How many will find a place like Hampden-Sydney, choosing a good environment over climbing the ladder of elite universities?

I hope many will, because we will never run out of young fools like I was. I needed a role model for how to take school seriously without being a brown noser. I needed evidence that honoring my genuine intellectual curiosity with effort and some diligence did not have to make me a grind. Indeed, it could be a kind of rebellion of its own.

Jim Simms showed me something better to pretend to be: a grown-up.  And I may get there yet.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.