I don't see how anyone can take Rick Perlstein's essay seriously. It's quite possibly the most ludicrous string of nostalgic, nauseating assertions I've read in a while.
An attempt to follow his argument leaves me quite confused. This is because there really isn't an argument. Instead, we rely upon the technique recently perfected by Noah Feldman of extrapolating from specifics to the whole. Perlstein uses his own personal experience, his limited discussions with students and his own alma mater as a basis for a most ridiculous set of generalizations.
He begins his essay with a nod to days gone by, sadly describing the lost Reagan era. The issue of the day was that of college; apparently the very question "What are you going to do about Berkeley?" garnered applause. Perlstein determines that the fact that it is "unimaginable now that a gubernatorial race in the nation's largest state would come down to a debate about what was happening on campus" demonstrates absolutely that college nowadays is a failure and a sham. College is obviously no longer that hotbed of intellectual debate and "sexual orgies so vile" that they must be addressed by a President.
I do not see where his neat line of cause and effect comes into play. Perlstein is describing a different world, a different society, people with different sets of values. Surely he understands the value of history, the value of world events and politics at a particular time. Can he honestly compare the legitimacy of anti-war sentiment toward Vietnam to college students protesting the war in Iraq today? Are those two wars comparable? Is there a draft in place? I don't think so. Perlstein is utilizing an overly simplistic approach toward the issue; he has already determined that college is the root cause of all that is evil and simply desires to prove his point. He completely neglects to take into account the differences between socioeconomic and political affairs in the world he grew up in and the world we live in today. Perhaps college students had more influence due to the severity of a particular issue at that particular time. If there were a draft in place at the moment, who knows how that would change the issue? But we all know that the war in Iraq has little to no impact upon our daily lives. This is in extreme contrast to the Vietnam war.
Is it really fair to compare people fighting for or against such important issues as civil rights, equal rights for women, women's suffrage and tolerance to the issues of our day? We, who live in a sickeningly politically correct world, are suddenly supposed to arm ourselves with flags and picket in front of school buildings? For whom? For what?
You can offer some examples of relevant issues, if you wish: global warming is one. And how many people truly understand global warming? People need to understand an issue before expressing an opinion. I've been told to watch An Inconvenient Truth in order to receive some form of introduction to the issue. But even then, does this actually impact me? Do I have a broad enough sense of vision to care that the world might blow up at some time in the distant future, that we are limiting our resources and killing ourselves and someone in the future might lose out? Probably not. Another example might be the genocide in Darfur. Once again, this is not an issue that directly connects to students. Although I am certain that many people engage in rallies when organized by others and there are certainly some who are driven by the desire to make the world a better place, Darfur is not here. It is not here in America; it is not happening here; it is disconnected from us and we are disconnected from it. It is therefore harder to care.
Perlstein does not note that the issues that existed in the eras he discusses were all issues that directly affected Americans and college students. Racism and a lack of equal civil rights directly affected people here in America. Women's rights is an issue that directly affected women in America. The war in Vietnam obviously affected young people here; there was a draft in place and it was the college-aged students who were dying! So of course people were involved, people cared, people were busy fighting. People are always involved with issues that directly affect them, issues that actually touch them or impact them in some way.
But now? Can he really compare the events of those days to the events of our days? Because his entire argument rests upon the strength of that comparison. He is suggesting that our youth is more apathetic, that we as college students are more weak-willed due to the fact that college has failed us, college is not what it used to be. It is college that is at fault, not the difference in events, political structure, economics. No, none of these factors matter! It is the school that has changed.
In order to support this assertion, Perlstein leads into his own personal experiences at the University of Chicago, his alma mater. He nostalgically describes a world where college was the teenager's gateway to independence, the first time that he could experience "a kind of freedom that you couldn't imagine until you turned 18, you were no longer under adult control, and you made your own schedule....," what is in his eyes "the most liberating moment Americans have in life."
Now, however, Perlstein laments what he sees as the utter lack of drive and initiative on college campuses, claiming that students grow and prosper not because of college but despite it. Although he only has one student backing that assertion, Perlstein answers affirmatively that this is characteristic of colleges on a whole rather than a particular college. What does he give as support for that proof? Oh, that the same particular student went to visit his guidance counselor and was informed, "You're not meant for college. You should really drop out."
So let me get this straight. Hamilton asserts that college is a place that is straitlaced, confining, an environment that does not allow him to act in a creative fashion. Perlstein wonders whether this is characteristic of Hamilton's particular college or the college experience as a whole. After hearing that Hamilton's guidance counselor told him that he wasn't meant for college, Perlstein is able to claim that the "culture of ennervation" described by his selected student sampling is true for all because "Hamilton Morris told me stories" that suggest that.
Circular reasoning, anyone? Hamilton Morris' experience is limited to that: Hamilton Morris' experience. And yet Perlstein has no problem extrapolating from it in order to assert that college on a whole is flawed. And seems to find this argument logical.
Perlstein chooses to put down students who are actually happy with their college experiences, students like Caroline Ouwerkerk. He subtly characterizes her as flighty and unreliable by using the word "gushed" in relation to her. "As I futzed with my digital recorder, she gushed, "I'll talk all day about the university, whether or not I'm being recorded!" She gushed about the house system, where "someone is caring for you right from the start." She gushed about her job," and so on and so forth. Perlstein wants to give over the impression that a normal student couldn't possibly enjoy the confining college experience. Ouwerkerk is simply an outsider, someone who shouldn't be taken seriously. She doesn't "speak." She doesn't "talk." She doesn't "express her opinions." She gushes.
Perlstein goes so far as to classify Ouwerkerk, dismissing her as an "Organization Kid." The reason that she is unaware of the problem with college? It couldn't possibly be because one can legitimately enjoy college and find the environment helpful and conducive to growth and learning. Of course not. Instead, it is because poor Ouwerkerk is a "cog in the organization." She doesn't find college to be "infantalizing" as the supposedly brighter Hamilton Morrises do, but this is because "organization kids don't mind it." The clear insinuation is that organization kids aren't to be taken seriously. If you engage in impressive fun; if you work within the system, your opinion must automatically be discounted.
Perlstein does make a good point when he focuses on the question of respecting ideas for their potential market value versus respecting ideas for being just that: contributions to the intellectual sphere. I hadn't been aware that Chicago was considering trading in their Uncommon Application for a typical application. I think that would take away quite a lot of Chicago's allure and would be rather sad if they did that. It is precisely because the Chicago application was one that encouraged the students to really think and apply their minds that I found it appealing. I would be a pro-Uncommon Applicationist, but unlike the students Perlstein interviewed, my argument would not be "couched in economic terms."
Perlstein's argument now descends into maudlin nostalgic drivel. "You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who, say, shared a passion for Lenny Bruce. Now, for even the most provincial students, the Internet, a radically more democratic and diverse culture - and those hip baby-boomer parents - take care of the problem." Is Perlstein really that short-sighted? Does he truly believe that one can trade in finding friends who are similar to oneself for the cold comfort of the Internet? The Internet is a presence, and a strong one, in all of our lives, but I would argue that it is absolutely not the same as actually knowing a person who is similar to oneself, someone who shares "a passion for Lenny Bruce" or any other eclectic work or band. The idea that college is only important if it is a "first," the first place that one can discover an independant film or forbidden book, is unnecessarily limiting the institution. Why do this?
Perlstein concludes his essay by focusing upon the divide between the University of Chicago marketing materials which display "bucolic images of a mystic world apart, where 18-year-olds discover themselves for the first time in a heady atmosphere of cultural and intellectual tumult" and the reality, one where students could conceivably complain that they have been swindled. However, as he has not firmly established the truth of this reality, basing his assertions entirely upon a few scattered responses and ignoring those who oppose him by dismissing them as "organization kids," his conclusion is false. My limited experience at the University of Chicago was such that I know I would have been one of those to discover myself "for the first time in a heady atmosphere of cultural and intellectual tumult." But why base an opinion upon my limited knowledge? There are many students who enjoy college, who learn and grow and feel challenged within their particular environments. Perlstein's essay is a selective, cautious study in proving a point he wants to make to begin with rather than actually looking at the facts. He has only focused upon students at his alma mater, making no mention of students at other universities or colleges. He has completely neglected to deal with the economic, social and political issues of our time as opposed to the previous generation. Rather than engaging in an intellectually honest approach toward the issue, he has relied upon a biased, skewed portrayal of feelings over fact. If this is the case, my feelings are just as legitimate and just as valid: to Hamilton Morris and all those like him, I say, I enjoy college. I enjoy it very much. I find it to be a place that is entirely conducive to my learning and growing, to being challenged and forced to think.
My experience is obviously different. I am not at a secular university, so I do not expect the amenities and opportunities afforded by one. Nevertheless, I do feel that I can express my opinion, be quite vocal and be heard. The decision that I as an Orthodox Jew am making is how much of my reputation I want to put on the line. If I express ideas or opinions that do not fit within the confines of my religious spectrum, I will have to deal with the consequences and/or with the lack of understanding due to lack of exposure. But that is an entirely different issue and one that I do not feel most people would have to grapple with. When it comes to an experience at a secular college, you make of it what you will. There is certainly opportunity to be a lazy, apathetic, whining and complaining child who claims that he feels confined, straitlaced and otherwise hemmed in. But there is also the opportunity to grow and be challenged within the system and the structure presented, and there are certainly people who will succeed in that way as well.
College is not the issue at hand. There is nothing the matter with college.
There is, however, something the matter with people.
What is it? What causes some people to be driven, strong and determined, wishing to actualize their goals, to recreate their reality, to rise for the top and succeed in reaching it? And what causes others to complain and blame those outside themselves (such as institutions of higher education) for their lack of success?
The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this essay. But the point remains: It is people who determine the value of their college experience. People who can choose to act or not to act. People who are alternatively passionate or apathetic, resigned or committed.
So let's not blame college. Let's not blame the schools. This is not their fault.
Let's deal with the root of the problem: the people attending those schools.