Homer and Herodotus, Sophocles and Plato, Aristotle and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. All names engraved in the edifice of Columbia’s Butler Library. They may be “dead white men,” but to undergraduates in the 1960s, they seemed very much alive in the classes where we engaged their texts and debated their ideas. The skills in thinking that we sought could be applied to professions like law and medicine and finance, but we felt the pure scholarship of our professors was the pinnacle of intellectual life.
Some forty-five years later, students still begin their education at my alma mater with the Iliad. But the competition to read it on Morningside Heights has become much more fierce. Freshmen are drawn from a pool of applicants with stratospheric SATs and near-perfect GPAs, winners of Intel competitions and math olympiads.
Rachel Adams is a professor of English and American studies at Columbia, each day facing such high-achieving young men and women. She describes herself as similarly driven, an academic who grew up with chamber music concerts in the living room and fell in love with a fellow teaching assistant at a lecture class on Shakespeare. Adams explored the phenomenon of freak shows in the United States. This work led to a critically acclaimed book, Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Its stylized prose, broad generalizations, and detached perspective are typical of much academic work today:
Although they have often been treated as an ephemeral form of amusement, freak shows performed important cultural work by allowing ordinary people to confront, and master, the most extreme and terrifying forms of Otherness they could imagine, from exotic dark-skinned people, to victims of war and disease, to ambiguously sexed bodies. In a nation that prides itself somewhat contradictorily on its affirmation of individuality and its ability to assimilate differences, the freak show has political and social, as well as psychoanalytic significance…. The sideshow platform is both a source of entertainment and a stage for playing out many of the century’s most charged social and political controversies, such as debates about race and empire, immigration, relations among the sexes, taste, and community standards of decency.
Adams married her fellow teaching assistant Jon Connelly, who ultimately left academia and became a lawyer, in part to serve as the primary breadwinner for the family. Their first child, Noah, was born when Adams was thirty-six years old. Because of her age, she underwent a comprehensive series of tests for birth defects, including amniocentesis, in which a needle is introduced through the abdomen to draw out fetal cells for direct examination of any chromosomal abnormalities. Noah is a healthy child, and as school approaches, he undergoes a series of standardized exams:
We knew they measured little more than whether he was good at taking tests. That, and whether his parents and teachers had put him through the battery of expensive practice materials sold by test prep …