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.