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.