What’s the Matter With College?

It usually pisses me off when old[er] people, particularly from publications like the New York Times, write about what’s wrong with the kids today. But despite a couple paragraphs of smug nostalgia in the beginning, Rick Perlstein’s essay What’s the Matter with College? strikes pretty close to my own experiences and observations.

Doug Mitchell was beaming, but his face fell when I told him about my conversation the previous evening with Hamilton Morris, a New Yorker finishing up his first year of college. His parents make documentary films. He attended a high school of the arts where “they sort of let me do whatever I wanted.” He is a filmmaker, painter, photographer, an experienced professional standup comedian. His life pre-college was exceptionally fulfilling, and he expected it to remain so here at one of the nation’s great universities. Then what happened?

“I hated it from the first day,” he told me. “People here are so insanely uncreative, and they’re proud of it.” His fellow students “had to spend their entire high school experience studying for the SATs or something and didn’t really get a chance to live life or experience things.”

What’s most harrowing was Hamilton’s matter-of-fact description of a culture of enervation – “that so many people hate it with a passion and don’t leave.” I heard similar things from several bright, creative searchers on campus – the kind of people in whom I recognized my own (and Doug Mitchell’s) 19-year-old self. I sat down with a group of them at the Medici Cafe, a campus fixture for decades, and they described college as a small town they’re eager to escape. “Everyone I talk to has that kind of feeling in their bones,” Mike Yong, a Japanese literature student, insisted. “Even if they’re going into investment banking.” Someone offered the word “infantilizing.” Murmurs of assent, then the word “emasculating,” to even louder agreement. One even insisted his process of political, social and creative awakening had happened, yes, during college – but not because of college, but in spite of it.

The Times is sponsoring an essay contest for students to respond. I don’t have much to say as, sadly, I pretty much agree with everything Perlstein says. On the other hand, I don’t see this as so tragic: My generation gets to have its “political, spiritual, and creative awakening” about 4 years earlier, and it happens for free on the Internet instead of inside the gates of exclusive campuses. Unfortunately, it seems like for many of my peers this awakening will never come, but that probably was always the case.

[via NYT’s Magazine College Essay Contest]

One thought on “What’s the Matter With College?”

  1. Whoa! That hits pretty close to the bone, eh? Never thought I’d feel guilty for being a hip parent, but I guess we denied you the liberating experience of escaping from “a suburb that felt like a jail”. I made very few vows in my youth, but one that has been something of a pole-star was to never subject my kids to the intellectual and cultural desert that was my suburban youth. Please accept my apology for the smug reminiscence!

    Perlstein’s strongest point may be that the internet has basically replaced college as the gateway to liberation for oppressed youth. But his secondary considerations on the marketization of college are worth consideration too. The quaint ideals of college as an intellectual journey, of the university as a cloister where inquiry for its own sake is cherished and protected, these have been drowned in an ever-rising tide of greed, fear, and selfishness. Another cultural casualty of plutocracy.

    Of course if the plutocrats hadn’t done it, the theocrats might have. But the market stifles ever so much more efficiently than ignorance and intolerance. Caresses ultimately more effective than blows. Indeed, the universities might even thrive anew as islands of resistance should the theocrats achieve their ends.

    BTW, Perlstein’s blog is also excellent.

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