What’s the Matter with Colleges? Answer: It’s You, not Us.

Posted by at 11:18PM

College-Trip---Harvard-2004.jpg
Rick Perlstein of the New York Times asks “What’s the Matter with Colleges?”. He wants to know why colleges no longer lead our society in culture like they did in the 60’s and 70’s and even 80’s. The main reason is that there are a lot more people IN college today.
I’ll be honest, I did not like this essay and my response is not going to be politically correct. Rick Perlstein seemed to me to be a stuck up rich literary nerd who is longing for the good old days back when he was in school, oh so long ago (1988-1992). He talks about reading forbidden books, going to see jazz masters play, inviting and engaging with intellectual and cultural luminaries, spending countless hours debating issues in the dorms.
But in contrast, today’s colleges lack this cultural and intellectual vigor. One college student complains that “people here are so insanely uncreative, and they’re proud of it.” The main problem in his eyes was that his classmates “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.”
To me that sounds exactly like something a rich white kid would say.


Yes, lots of people spend time studying for the SAT’s because it’s an important part of getting into college, which is the path that is generally accepted as necessary to succeed in America. To harp on this kid some more, his parents sent him to a high school of the arts where he “sort of got to do whatever he wanted”! Come on – does it sound like this guy is worried about finding a career after college?
The reason why college in the past was a leader in culture was because it was filled with upper class people who could afford this sit around and write and think and talk. I couldn’t find any good numbers for historical collegiate attendance, but in 2002, around 50% of 18-21 (pdf) year olds were attending college. I’m sure the percentage and total number was much lower in the 70’s.
In the past high school was enough to get a decent job and make a living. College was for bright people who could afford to learn extra stuff get together to do intellectual and cultural things together. Now, most jobs require AT LEAST a college degree. Is it any surprise that there are A) Many more people attending college who are not upper class and B) More concern for getting a good job after college than “contributing to the cultural advancement of society”?
Rick Perlstein is right, College is no longer what it used to be. But America is not what it used to be and colleges are just reflecting that change. Perlstein is like the son of a rock star complaining that today’s artists are “selling out” and not staying true to the music. Sorry but not everyone can have it as good as you.
Let me be clear – it would be great if every student’s college experience was like Rick’s and Rick’s older friends. I think at Stanford it still IS like that. But it is foolish and naive to think that RIGHT NOW, this experience characterizes the majority of experiences of college students. The times have changed Rick, stop living in the past. I’m sor ry we’re tainting your memories of college, but some of us need to work hard to get jobs out of school.

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6 Responses to “What’s the Matter with Colleges? Answer: It’s You, not Us.”

  1. stephen says:

    Save it for the essay competition XP
    But seriously, well written. I couldn’t agree more that this guy has a pseudo-erudite purview that attempts to captures some nostalgic collegiate history that I’m pretty sure never existed. To compound matters he ignores the cultural revolution that this generation is initiating via online medium such as facebook, youtube, blogs, etc. Just because we aren’t having physical sit-ins doesn’t mean we aren’t working to change things digitally (change.org anyone?). Hell, even if you argue we aren’t spurring real political change, I’d argue that we’re one of the single motivating factors of online commerce.
    I’m a little drunk (something father time would probably have an issue with) so maybe I should stop while what I’ve written is semi-coherent. I DO intend to write a response to this fool before the deadline however.

  2. Robert says:

    Since when is college about finding a job? Very little of what is learned outside of engineering has any application to a job. Sure, a degree is necessary, but the degree just stands for a set of intellectual and life experiences. I fail to see how being poor makes you unable to engage in those experiences.
    College, to you, is a simple utilitarian thing? Stanford would be a much better place without people like you.

  3. christian says:

    Jason, I’m afraid i must respectfully disagree with you.
    I don’t know for sure whether Rick Perlstein is rich or white (most likely he is both) but I don’t think that should discount his comment about college culture. His opening vignette about life at Cal in the 70s is not about speaking from some high moral ground. I don’t think that just because you “need to work hard” to get a job after school you can’t do exactly what Perlstein says: i believe you can still appreciate and relish in the college culture perlman harkens back to. I’m not saying you are some culturally bankrupt person if you dont but I fail to see how your argument holds water when ultimately you and Perstein simply see college as two very different things. You seem to view Stanford as a means to an end– the four years of work you invest for a great job and a competitive salary at the end. iti s like a machine: in goes your brains, talent and drive and out comes a diploma, a job and a future. Perlstein hopes we see college as it was for him: a time to grow intellectually and emotionally and all that fuzzy stuff– as well as get a job. perlman’s machine inputs the same thing as yours, talent, drive, intelligence; but his college machine creates something entirely different: a recipe for moral and clear living, a sum of important experiences, and a meaningful guide for life after college.
    Perhaps the times were different for perlman (certainly they were) and the job market requires one thing or another that it did not require of Perlstein; I don’t have or care to have any numbers which speak to that. But I don’t think that one’s hopes for a professional career are mutually exclusive with one’s ability to take the lead in a cultural sense via college. If you do see these ideas as mutually exclusive, then I join Perlstein in lamenting the death of college culture, or the point of college at all. There is a prof in the history department whose door I walked by a few times a week when i went to one of my classes in bldg 200 in the spring. I dont remember whose it was and i know i’ll be butchering the quotation here, but on her door was a simply 8.5″ by 11″ piece of paper saying how in the 50s, the goal of 60something% of college students was to gain insight into life and to have meaningful experiences. In the 1990s, that factoid had been replaced by the same percentage of kids who wanted to make a lot of money after college. clearly, the poignancy of this statement has been lost in my rambling, but the idea is this: people apply to, attend, and leave college with very different goals than before. and that is sad, not because people are motivated and enthusiastic to join the work force– those are good things– but it is sad because now, your stanford diploma (or your ohio wesleyan or nyu or umich diploma) is not something you hang on your wall proudly because it represents the vast intellectual growth you’d experienced, but it represents your best shot at making it through round two interviews at goldman or google.

  4. Rick Perlstein says:

    You’re rough on me, but you make good points. If I had had more space I would have argued precisely that it’s NOT your fault. It’s political. College kids can’t afford self-exploration in college, because it’s so much harder to get into and stay in the middle class. It’s political.
    Let me recommend a book on the subect: “The Trap,” by Daniel Brook. Every college student and recent grad should read it. Here’s my review:
    http://commonsense.ourfuture.org/independence_day
    Hope you’ll enter the essay contest.

  5. Jason says:

    Wow – so many passionate response is such short time! This is great. I’m impressed that Rick has found the blog and posted a response. Thanks so much for reading and I will definitely check out that book (it’s getting hammered on amazon as for reviews though, ouch! And a lot of them …sound like me).
    To clarify my view a bit – I write best when I’m angry and I got a little angry reading Rick’s essay. So my response is the strongest rebuttal I could make and might come of as a bit abrasive. My point was that for MOST college students, getting a degree is simply a means to a good job. It’s just another prerequisite, and so there is less intrinsic motivation to engage cultural and intellectual pursuits that are beyond the scope of the major.
    Let’s remember: 30 years ago these people simply wouldn’t BE IN college because it wouldn’t be worth the money. Meanwhile the percentage of wealthier college students who engage in cultural and intellectual pursuits decreases. Their effect is in a sense “diluted”. (of course its not one or the other, but wealthy families are generally more educated and value education more than poorer families)
    I personally would love to see people experience college as a place of intellectual growth and self-discovery but right now not everyone is getting that. It sounds like we have the same goal – to work towards a future where all citizens can have a meaningful collegiate experience, not just a select few. I’ve been lucky to have a very varied and interesting education but not everyone has.
    I agree with all of you: Getting a good job is not everything. In fact it’s not much at all. Life isn’t a movie, the camera keeps rolling.

  6. Rick Perlstein says:

    Well, as Dan Brook points out in his book (which is being rated down on Amazon, by the way, by lemings driven from the libertarian site Instapundit) your point “Let’s remember: 30 years ago these people simply wouldn’t BE IN college because it wouldn’t be worth the money” certainly wasn’t true for, say, people who attended the University of California system–because tuition was free.
    Elite schools like the one you (Stanford) and I (Chicago) were also radically cheaper. By way of comparison, in the early 1980s the tuition at Chicago used to be a third of the annual salary of a Chicago public school teacher. Now the two are about equal.
    This against a political climate in which the maximum Pell grant, which now covers a third of the average tuition, used to cover three-quarters.
    And the college loan system has been outsourced by the government to hustlers and cronies.
    It’s not a pretty picture. This, I think, is the material base for the atrophying of college culture and vitality (which I heard about from sources at many schools, though I only talk about Chicago) we’re experiencing. America will be worse off for it, I fear–because we need free spirits in order to innovate and compete.

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