Oberlin-in-London Blogs

Gatsby and the London Program
››› August 31, 2011 | Posted By David Tisel '13
Everything important I know I learned from The Great Gatsby. As a high school student, that book was my atlas, history textbook, and bible.

The summer before 9th grade, my parents' decision to move back to the Twin Cities from the Netherlands uprooted me from my childhood home and deposited me at my father's new workplace: Saint Paul Academy and Summit School, a small, private, K-12 day school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Although, technically, the students there spoke my native language, let's say there was a discrepancy in the finer points of social interaction.

Those differences were as much a mystery to me as the proper operation of those blue U.S. mailboxes (the first time I tried opening one prompted the joke, "how many American expatriates does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"). And like so many expatriates clambering on ladders, fumbling with lightbulbs, I was at a loss about the social life at my high school. But then something clicked.

In The Great Gatsby, a newcomer does his best to "fit in" with high society in Long Island. Gatsby literally spends his life amassing wealth, making the right connections, and throwing parties in order to gain the love and approval of Daisy Buchanan, a beautifully frail old-money insider.

As I read the story in my American Lit class, I all of a sudden started seeing Gatsbys and Buchanans everywhere I looked. The way Fitzgerald's characters operated in subterranean closed circles was a portrait of the quiet exclusion I felt daily. When I learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald actually went to my high school, I took the bus to Rice Park in downtown Saint Paul and paid homage to the small brass statue of my new idol.

My experience transitioning to life in America and at Saint Paul Academy was what first got me interested in socioeconomic class and comparative political economy. I used to theorize about the sources of difference between the countries, and like most high school students, I theorized about my peers as well. It wasn't until I got to Oberlin and took Marc Blecher's first-year seminar about Class that my eyes were opened to the wealth of social theories out there besides the ones between the lines of The Great Gatsby.

Now I am thrilled to take another transatlantic step in understanding class by participating in the Oberlin-in-London program. I think that the triangulation of experiences in the Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom should give me a well-rounded view of how various political, economic, and social factors play roles in class development, class consciousness, and class mobility.

I didn't know it when I first read the book, but Gatsby suffered because he didn't know the difference between class and status honor. Had Gatsby read Weber, he might have spent a little less time improving his position in the labor market, and a little more time improving his social status by, for instance, reading Weber.

Oberlin College & Conservatory | 101 North Professor Street, Oberlin, Ohio 44074 | 440-775-8121