Most people consider themselves fortunate to get one college education, but in his new book, “Things I Learned in College: My Year in the Ivy League,” Sean-Michael Green has captured close to a dozen such educations by visiting every Ivy League school and documenting what he learned there.
From the first page, Green’s insights about college life feel genuine. The introduction describes a class half-full, with one student asleep at his desk and two others arguing over the subject of the day. Green even makes note of the awkwardness of sitting in with a group of twenty year olds and being singled out as a man in his mid-thirties, but this honesty lends the rest of the book a credibility that it might not otherwise have if Green had omitted those feelings.
“Things I Learned” is broken down by chapters, with each chapter discussing Green’s experiences at a different Ivy League school. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale all make appearances in the book, and it is a credit to Green’s writing ability and keen perception that each chapter feels like a unique experience.
At other times, however, Green can come across as snobbish or arrogant. He explains early in the book that he has studied at several Ivy League schools, but also throws out a few lines that could be seen as shots at other schools that compare themselves to the Ivies. In one line paragraph, Green recounts how he once met a gas station cashier that told him she attended an Ivy.
“When I asked which school she went to, she said, ‘Bucknell,’” Green writes. “I probably smiled and nodded - it is too traumatic for me to think about.”
In a later section of the book, Green describes high fives in a way that makes it sound like they’re almost beneath him, writing, “For me, it is extremely artificial because I am not a high-five-kind-of-guy. I firmly believe that high-fives are what happens when meaningless elevator small talk deteriorates into hand gestures.”
The best parts of “Things I Learned,” though, are the observations that Ivy League students make about each other. Just about every chapter features students taking shots at other Ivy League schools, their own school and particularly their fellow students in different academic disciplines.
Unfortunately, Green does date his research by frequently referencing events and people that occurred or became irrelevant years or decades ago. In the Cornell chapter, Green references a Ralph Nader for President rally, which is odd because Nader hasn’t run for president since 2008. In the Yale chapter, Green talks about tailgating and attending a football game that took place in November 2004. Every time “Things I Learned” dates itself this way, the reader feels like less like they’re getting the authentic Ivy experience and more like they’re reading the highlights of an alumni’s time at college.
Although the book occasionally reads like excerpts from an Ivy League brochure, each chapter has at least one moment that stands out as a special experience. Going to a frat party at Cornell, driving people to a strip club at Brown and talking to a man Green describes as “a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe and a hater of gluten” at Yale are all highlights from the book.
There are few people that get to experience what life is like at multiple Ivy League schools, and there may be even fewer that can contrast and compare each institution. “Things I Learned in College” accomplishes this goal, and provides fascinating, not to mention entertaining, glimpses into the realm of Ivy League schools.
Edward Pankowski is the life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.