Jason has challenged us here at the SU blog to respond to the NYT College Essay Contest “Why College Matters.” I’m actually not eligible to enter the contest as I’m not an undergraduate, but as someone who became a freshman one year after Rick Perlstein graduated from the University of Chicago (yes now you can start calculating my age), I would like to throw in my two-cents
I disagree with Jason a bit, and agree with Perlstein a bit, but then again, I find the Perlstein doesn’t even seem to be able to articulate his exact grievances. Instead he relies on comparing/contrasting a couple of anecdotes and over generalizes the extent of the problem today while comparing it to a happy yesterday that never existed (so I also agree with Jason a bit too).
The main complaint of Perlstein’s meandering essay is that the culture the students bring with them into college (a culture of overscheduled commitment to resume builders which, in a way, homogenizes students and stifles their creativity) combined with a college culture which infantilizes students (think of all the complaints about drinking and party policies in the Daily) has led to the slow demise of a once great cultural innovator.
Like Jason, I believe that colleges today reflect the culture of today, and the heady heyday of yesteryears that Perlstein and others remember, particularly in the 60s and early 70s, was not as widespread as he thinks. I also believe that the counter culture was actually fueled by a wide variety of individuals, some of whom hung around campuses but were not enrolled or who had dropped out, and by some who were not in college at all. When you think of it this way, it make sense to claim that the counterculture was imported into, rather than exported from, colleges and universities. While the counterculture could be said to have been imported into colleges, I wonder exactly how many students actually were part of those groups Perlstein talks about who called Anais Nin? At any college institution you can find a small committed group of innovated thinkers who enjoy debating and passionately pursue their interests. The question is how many students in the 60s and 70s were just following fashion, and how many were actually experiencing the revolution in full flower. The same could be asked of Perlstein’s rememberance of his college experiences – I enjoyed college experience similar to his, however, this had more to do with the people I hung out with than a pervasive dorm culture. This taught me that the college experience is what you make of it.
The complains of the students interviewed by Perlstein who found college “enervating” and “infantilizing” did not sound to me like the complaints of “the whiney privileged,” but rather the complaints of people who came into college expecting that there would be some pre-existing group or movement, revolutionary, artistic, bohemian, etc., already in place for them to join. Like a complaint from students who want their college experience to be manufactured for them, rather than having to create it themselves. Perlstein actually seemed to miss this subtext because he identifies too much with the “rebels.” The rebels he interviewed were just as much contributors to the culture problem Perlstein identifies as the “organization kids” he was complaining about. My sympathy falls with the “organization kids,” because at least they’re creating their own experience and not expecting someone to walk them through rebellion 101. I actually worry that I am encountering the attitude of the “rebel kids” more and more. I fear that the demand for manufactured experiences is a widespread social phenomenon in the U.S. which encourages a kind of cultural laziness. People begin to expect the experience to come to them or to be available to them at their convenience, rather than seeking out the new and understanding that experiences can’t be scheduled.
The “organization kid” mode encourages the creation of one’s own experience, however, it also encourages dilettantism and commitment to the goal but not the work it takes to get to the goal. I see the “organization kids” Perlstein talks about all over Stanford’s campus – individuals who are driven, join every club in existence and are scheduled up the wazoo with academic, work and social commitments. I’ve been their teaching assistant, classmate, and mentor, and have been stood up on appointments (or had people arrive 20 minutes late), asked to cut students slack because their resume building and academic committments are colliding, and been asked to pick up the slack for individuals who join a project or job but can’t put in the work. The problem with being overscheduled is that it leads to people skimping on the actual commitments that they schedule themselves for because they can’t fulfill them all. This over-organization is a social trend as well judging by the number of articles written lately in popular magazines on how to say no to commitments or how to simplify an overscheduled life.
Like Jason pointed out earlier, college today fulfills a very different function than it did 20 or 100 years ago. Because college is still a formative experience, we can’t say that the college experience won’t contribute to the construction of young adults into participatory citizens, which, in turn, does influences culture. My advisor is always citing studies which show that many changes in attitudes freshman experience actually take place prior to entering college because they know that college is supposed to be a life changing experience (it’s the “expect it so it happens” principle) so we do know that college influences people’s behavior, which in turn, influences culture (but hey since it’s not instantaneous Perlstein seems to think its not happening).
But, if I was to posit with Perlstein that colleges aren’t as significant contributors to culture, I would argue that this is because they are a reflections of society and there are some disturbing wide ranging cultural trends and malaise in society today which includes, among other things, the commodification of experience, widespread availability of instant gratification, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the celebration of willful ignorance, acceptance of totalitarianism, and the loss of civil liberties..