Big bubble on campus

by nkronos on January 31, 2011

Back in 2004, Tom Wolfe wrote a baggy novel called I Am Charlotte Simmons that received poor reviews with many critics feeling Wolfe–then 73 years old–had turned into a puritanical old man, envious of the sexual liberalities of young coeds. The NY Times wrote, “In the course of a very long 676 pages [Wolfe] serves up the revelation–yikes!–that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes and use four-letter words.” Further:

Though Mr. Wolfe tries to gussy things up with his hyperventilated prose and a noisy arsenal of narrative bells and whistles, most of his observations will be overwhelmingly familiar to anyone who has been to college, sent children to college or gone to the movies. We’re told that athletes look down on studious types as pathetic wonks, academic types look down on athletes as stupid jocks, and the wildest of wild frat boys look down on just about everyone else. We’re also told that there are racial tensions between the black and white players on the basketball team, and that most of the players get academic breaks their classmates don’t.

Yes, it was all pretty clichéd stuff and not Wolfe’s greatest effort.  Nevertheless, what the reviewer missed is the significance of the Bacchanal drumbeat of those 676 pages and the disproportionate share of college life devoted to non-academic pursuits. That is, a reader may well find the novel boring and over-long but to agree that it is a “so what?” rendition of actual college life should be, well, horrifying. After all, a college degree now takes typically five (rather than four) years to acquire, and the cost of a bachelor’s degree is approaching $100,000.


According to a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 17 percent of American college students graduate with a degree, which places the U.S.  sixteenth internationally in terms of graduation rate.

Thus, acknowledging that American undergraduates party, get wasted, and have lots of sex is one thing; realizing that this five-year-long debauchery leaves them shackled with debt and often no smarter than when they started is another. When our economy was roaring and jobs plentiful perhaps we could tolerate such a vacation, despite its cost increasing faster even than health care. Now, however, as with so much else we have reached a day of reckoning.

It turns out, Wolfe’s fiction was accurate, and there’s more bad news. John Tierney summarizes much of it in the Atlantic. One important point: It’s not all the kids’ fault. Colleges and universities have likewise squandered the responsibility they have to steward both the financial resources they’ve been given, and the far more valuable resource of the best and brightest minds America has to offer.  Students may be studying less in favor of drinking and nookie, but the responsible adults are also devoting more and more of their budgets to administrative salaries and recreational facilities, rather than instruction.

Mathematically, the United States has 6 percent of the world’s population. We produce more than one quarter of world GDP. That cannot continue if our work force is incapable of high individual productivity (especially with high levels of domestic unemployment). When we squander the training and education of our citizens, we squander their future standard of living.

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

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