By Alexa Solis
Anticipation, loneliness, excitement ⎯— a college freshmen might feel one or a culmination of these emotions as they begin their journey towards higher education and self-realization. Boston College graduate and author Ian Thomas Malone’s novel “Five College Dialogues” is a comedic guide for college freshman in the form of five Socratic dialogues between teachers assistant George “Chief” Tecce and a multitude of his students, a professor and even a dean.
Each dialogue represents a certain facet of college and the nonacademic lessons that most underclassmen are likely to encounter at some point in their college careers. George Tecce, henceforth known as Chief, embarks upon his journey as a teaching assistant to educate the young masses in the style of the highly influential philosopher Socrates. Though the concept of the book is intriguing, it lacks the execution necessary to make something as risky as a comedic take on Socratic dialogue work. Unfortunately what could have been a witty take on the college experience falls flat and becomes inaccessible to the audience it is meant to serve.
The first dialogue in the novel is the tale of a lonely freshman male. Brian’s tale is one known by many college freshmen, and as such is immediately accessible to the book’s audience. For many it might alleviate the growing pains that come with being away from home and the familiar friends of high school, but the advice is often so wrapped up in its own importance that it falls short of making any kind of point.
Malone often takes a stab at the college experience with an attempt at wry humor. However, his delivery falls into the trap of becoming so preachy that it is difficult to take with any note of seriousness. Though the dialogue suffers from its hackneyed humor, there are pieces of wisdom scattered throughout that would be genuinely helpful to anyone coming into college for the first time.
Unfortunately the following dialogues fall into a similar trap as the first chapter. The second dialogue, Argos, is a low point in the novel. Much like the previous dialogue, the subject matter is relevant to the struggles of higher education, but those hardships are treated with such a heavy hand that it makes it nearly impossible to get through without a groan. The dialogue is made even harder to read by the sheer contemptuous nature of Chief’s advice.
Perhaps the most interesting dialogue in the novel, Lambros, feels slightly less clunky than the others due to the fact that in this particular instance, it is not Chief doing the teaching. Professor Mycroft, under which Chief teaches, serves as a point for Malone’s criticism of generational perceptions of work and happiness. Much of Chief’s counsel comes from a place not of discussion but of unrestrained condescension. While the heavy-handed nature of Chief’s Socratic teachings may be hackneyed, that is part of its charm. Malone’s depiction of Chief, the fiery TA who can’t help but advise his students on their personal lives, is a different way of looking at the universal college experience.
Malone’s use of a figure of such as Professor Mycroft makes Lambros the most interesting read, if anything, because it poses an actual philosophical dilemma that Socrates himself would have posed.
In contrast to the previous chapter, which was a smart use of the Socratic dialogue format employed by Malone in his college how-to, Eros suffers greatly from its subject matter. Malone’s broaching of hookup culture, while brave was a bit misguided. Personal ideologies aside, the dialogue lacks the kind of language and realistic setting that is necessary to keep a current college student’s interest.
Instead of posing a question or thought, perhaps challenging or defending hookup culture, Malone continues to put Chief on a holier-than-thou crusade that merely scratches the surface of the topic.
Malone’s final dialogue Ethos is the most action packed of any of the dialogues. As Socrates himself taught the western world, no action goes unanswered, and Chief’s unconventional teachings, eventually catch up to him and he must face the dean of the English department.
Chief’s acerbic banter with the dean was Malone’s most successful use of the wit and mocking humor that was not as successfully employed in previous dialogues. While the teacher–student norm of previous was shirked completely in Ethos, it is Malone’s most succinct and clear-cut criticism of society and the system of higher education, making it the most successful dialogue.
Malone’s use of Chief as a 21st century Socrates was painful at times, but it was also a clever way of looking at the higher education system and experience that is so integral to many people in contemporary society.
Alexa Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @thealexasolis.