Paradise Lost?

Posted on 01. Apr, 2007 by in Snapshots

On a steamy July morning, sleepy students slowly trickle into a small seminar room at Cornell University. Mugs of coffee and tea in hand, they drop thick annotated tomes of medieval literature onto a horseshoe of worn wooden tables. Their minds sated by the hundreds of pages crammed into them the night before, the students murmur quietly amongst themselves, critically perusing copies of a classmate’s paper on The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Despite the early hour and oppressive heat, the classroom pulsates with minds revving in intellectual anticipation. Two professors call the class to attention, and a group session of intense critique and analysis commences. The students jump with electric speed from style to content to themes to philosophy to meta-textual concerns, pushing one another to breach the boundaries of their intellectual comfort zones. They tackle the impact of particular rhetorical techniques, the distinctions between masculine and feminine voice, and the role of Biblical allusions. After three hours, they break for lunch.

While this scene is typical of many an Ivy League seminar, none of these students are in college. In fact, they aren’t even out of grade school. Many of them don’t have driver’s licenses, and none of them can vote. They are rising high school seniors, barely seventeen, all part of the Telluride Association Summer Program. An intensive, six-week seminar program, TASP was established in 1954. Its students attend class for three hours every weekday, receive no grades, and earn no academic credit. Most of the fifty states are represented and, while most participants are American, some hail from as far as Singapore. They come from trailers in the heartland, from mansions on the coasts, from apartments in the metropolitan centers. Some have never attended a creative writing class. Others have already composed award-winning plays.

In some ways, the TASP application process is equally, if not more, competitive than those of the top universities most TASP students will later attend. Applications are mailed to those who score in the 99th percentile of the PSAT, although high school teachers can recommend outstanding students to the program and, a recent change in policy allows highly motivated prospective attendees to download the application and go it alone. To enter a TASP classroom, applicants must write six lengthy essays and undergo rigorous interviews. About seventy students are accepted to the program at the end of this long process, and all of them are awarded a scholarship to attend one of five seminars held at colleges around the country. These classes cover topics such as “The Dilemma of Modernism,” “The Battle of the Sexes in Medieval and Renaissance Literature,” “Race, Class, and Gender in British and American History,” “War, Violence, and Storymaking,” and “The Mystery of Creativity”-titles that could be lifted from many a university course catalog.

A hefty handful of TASP alumni matriculate at Yale each fall, and many grace the ranks of Directed Studies, a selective freshman program that takes a writing-intensive and interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Western Canon. They are well-prepared. Thanks to TASP, these students have already shared a house, managed a collective budget, and been tutored by renowned professors. As Joshua Garcia, a Yale sophomore who attended TASP at Cornell in 2004, looked back on his experience, he said he realized “that it was one of the most intense intellectual experiences I ever had and that I will have.”

As a former TASP student myself, I recognize the deep intellectual awakening, the feeling of academic possibility that the program inspires. I have also come to accept its inherent transience. Now, I wonder if it is healthy for these bright minds to arrive at college with soaring intellectual expectations that are almost bound to be dashed by the university system. After all, it seems unnatural for a freshman to enter a world of education less ideal and less isolated than the one he or she had previously encountered. I find myself questioning the advantage of the fragile state of enlightenment the program offers its attendees. Is this singular scholarly community too unreal to be of value?

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ll students who participate in TASP quickly embrace their new identities as “TASPers,” hoping to gain what the official 2007 brochure calls “a sense of intellectual purpose and community responsibility.” Described in promotional materials as “semi-monastic,” the TASP program discourages participants from associating with anyone outside the community for the duration of the program in order to foster an undistracted dedication to the spirit of the experience. The program is also described as “semi-autonomous,” and, in many ways, every TASP group runs itself. TASPers meet once a week for a “town meeting” to discuss issues of communal relevance, allocate funds, and plan social activities. TASPers also shoulder kitchen duties, chores, and other household responsibilities. They quickly realize that the quality of their summer experience, both intellectually and socially, depends heavily on their individual contributions to the community.

TASP is a branch of the Telluride Association, which was founded in 1911 by Lucien L. Nunn, a mining engineer who made it big in the mineral-rich Rockies. Nunn, hoping to educate the young men who worked for him, dedicated his fortune to the Telluride Association and Deep Springs College. On its website, the Association defines itself as “a nonprofit organization that creates and fosters educational communities that rely upon democratic participation.” Telluride’s mission is complex: it aims at an “everyday synthesis of self-governance and intellectual inquiry that enables students to develop their potential for leadership and public service.” TASPers are often reminded of this philosophy by their paid “factota”-one or two college or graduate students who live and attend classes with each seminar group. Far from traditional camp counselors, the factota live up to their Latin names-“those who do everything.” In addition to attending seminar with the students, the factota help them with their papers and often become close with their summer wards, filling the roles of sibling, coach, mentor, and friend.

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or many of its participants, TASP offers a six-week utopia for nerdy, tortured teens who prefer poetry readings to pep rallies. “People need TASP to get away from the real world,” said Emma Griffin, a TASPer and current Yale freshman. Griffin recognizes the surreal elements of the TASP experience, but maintains that the students who participate in it are hungry for an intellectual and social experience unavailable to them in high school. Intellectualism, especially in an American grade school, can lead to profound alienation. By contrast, these small communities of adolescent intellectuals take on the character of Thoreau’s Walden as their members attempt to build an insular, erudite existence that is not only mentally superior, but altogether separate from their quotidian lives. Tae-Yeoun Keum, a junior, believes that highly creative minds lead lives that are “very solitary, very lonely, very terrifying.” TASP gave Keum what she called the “greatest kind of support: to know that you are not alone.”

This communal feeling of displacement facilitates an oddly powerful sense of trust among TASPers, a sense of confidence that fosters personal exposure and rapid intellectual development. Both seminar and daily routines are characterized by intimations of deep connection; TASPers really are there to help one another. Junior Jacob Eigen, an alumnus of both TASP and Deep Springs, felt extremely isolated as a high school student and found a novel sense of community during his Telluride summer. “TASP was really the one thing I did in high school that made me want to spend time with other people… whatever personal trust took place had to do with whatever intellectual trust was there.” Stacey Fitzgerald, a sophomore, expressed a similar opinion. “When I went to TASP, I spoke more freely that I ever have….There was nothing wrong with being wrong.”

This openness stems from the deep respect TASPers feel for their companions. Such regard derives in part from the students’ awareness of the admissions criteria, which focus not only on intellectual prowess but also on personal maturity and self-awareness. Matt Morello, who graduated from Yale in 2004, wrote of his TASP experience in an e-mail, recalling that “most of all, the other kids were so amazingly smart and curious-I felt awfully lucky to have made it there, not to mention freed by the blank slate to be myself, and motivated like maybe never before or again to prove and define myself in the context of that group.” Many TASPers believe that the students sitting across from them in seminar are the most intelligent and interesting people they have ever encountered. Elis are often filled with awe of their peers. Sylvia Bingham, a sophomore, said that “everyone poo-poos the pretentious and elitist aspects of TASP, but Yale has the same appeal. They are both so competitive that you end up with only the most dynamic people who care about academics.” The TASPers’ early submersion in this culture of excellence may, ironically, leave them more level-headed than their current classmates. Garcia feels that TASP helped him to begin “learning to accept my own merits because of who I am, not because of my talents. I was not the only talented person…You have a few crises, asking yourself, ‘Who am I? I am nothing.'”

TASP, of course, is just a summer endeavor, and, like any other camp, it inevitably comes to an end as TASPers disband and return to their respective high schools for their senior year. Most TASPers find this transition difficult. Keum admitted that “TASP made senior year unbearable.” Liz Tulis, a Yale graduate student and College alumni, who attended TASP in 1996, recalled that her last year of high school was characterized by a “shadow life” of nearly daily e-mail exchanges with her closest TASP friends. If TASPers found it difficult to relate to their peers before leaving for Cornell or UT Austin, they become even more disoriented after their summers away from home. Morello reflects, “How, after all, is real life supposed to compete with six weeks of dawn-busting, 17-year-old-soul-baring conversations? Ultimately, of course, real life won, but goddamn if that didn’t take a while.” Many TASPers spend their senior year in furious anticipation of college, which they hope will provide a kind of reincarnation of TASP.

Whether or not this rebirth comes to fruition-whether college can best, or even match, TASP’s intellectual intensity-is often questionable. Griffin chose to come to Yale because of TASP-she believed that Elis “were the most similar to TASPers and felt the same way about knowledge.” At the same time, she did not expect Yale to be TASP. “I didn’t have a disappointment in comparison to TASP. They are different experiences.”

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any alumni, unable to avoid comparing the two scholastic ventures, notice a void in their intellectual and social lives at Yale that was filled at TASP. Garcia expected his experiences in writing classes to be like TASP, but now knows that TASP-style workshopping “won’t happen again.” He says, “My intellectual experience at Yale is very rushed,” said Garcia, who deplored the discrepancy between the two hours a week devoted to seminars in college and the daily three-hour classes he enjoyed that summer. “At TASP, we had opportunities to talk about everything.” Fitzgerald agreed that her intellectual expectations were deflated at Yale. “TASP,” she said, “idealized the academic life.”

Most TASPers search for traces of their cultish summer bliss at Yale. “Of course I looked for TASP at Yale,” Morello wrote. “It was the only taste of collegiate, academic, non-home life I’d yet had.” Many turn to Directed Studies, hoping to find three year-long TASP seminars. Keum found that the intensive freshman program and TASP are, in some ways, similar programs. “At TASP, everywhere I went, I could see people working.” At Yale, these kindred spirits exist-in the library. “There was one day when I was in the Newspaper Room in Sterling reading Dostoevsky. All of a sudden, I looked up and saw another DSer across from me at the table. He had his Dostoevsky in front of him and his Nietzsche beside it. Our eyes met in profound Dostoevsky-ian empathy.” This kind of solidarity-the sense that everyone is collectively banging their brains against difficult texts-characterizes both TASP and certain tightly-knit classes at Yale. Nevertheless, Keum described her TASP seminar as something Yale has yet to match. While she spent much of Directed Studies “too scared to reflect,” TASP offered “a center that we all contributed to.”

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hile TASP readied its students for their coursework, it could not prepare them for the social atmosphere at Yale. Bingham feels that her experience at Yale lacks the particular closeness that TASP engenders. “I thought Yale would force me to get to know people who were different from me.” She was disappointed. “I still feel like my circle of friends is very predictable.”

Bingham also noted that the culture of TASP was notable for its lack of debauchery. “At TASP, there was no drinking, no sex, no alcohol. The monasticism was particularly great. Here, there is such a boundary between people who drink, have sex, flirt and those who don’t. At TASP, there was a sense that everyone should contribute to everyone’s education.” Garcia recalls “on weekend nights at TASP, we didn’t go out. We didn’t get drunk. We talked to each other all night. This doesn’t really happen here.”

Morello paints a similarly stark picture of Yale’s crowded social scene. “I don’t think I was disappointed by Yale so much as overwhelmed,” he said. “Neither TASP nor my small private high school had prepared me for anything like the ass-and-booze festival of Camp Yale…, I feel like I had to junk whatever expectations for college I’d formed at TASP within a few days or weeks of starting actual college-friends, freedom, and work at Yale were part of a much longer haul in a much bigger, more diverse place.”

For young intellectuals, how can any experience possibly match the ecstasy of a summer spent living and learning with smart, thoughtful peers, at the developmental fulcrum that is late adolescence?

Many ex-TASPers derive satisfaction from the way in which TASP, while a fleeting experience, has permanently changed them. “What TASP gave me more than an expectation of the world was more a vision of myself, a sense of what I could be,” said Keum. “I was close to my ideal self, being able to throw myself so completely and passionately into something I was doing. When I was leaving TASP, I shared a cab with two other TASPers. We were silent and then gradually realized we were all thinking the same thing: I do not want to return to my old mundane self…here, we don’t have the social support to do that again. But it doesn’t matter, I don’t think, as long as you know you are capable of it. It is in some ways a lost golden age.”

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