Somewhere between Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, the idea of contemporary college life resembling the last days of the Roman Empire became commonplace. In the February 28 New York Post, Kyle Smith reports how college admissions officers are uncovering examples of irresponsible personal behavior heedlessly documented on applicants’ very own Facebook pages. However, Smith continues in “Idiocy in the Age of Facebook,” tongue only partly in cheek, “Some colleges think it’s a little invasive to do this kind of thing—after all, if providing a place for sex/drink/drugs away from parental eyes is pretty much the top attraction of higher education in the first place, why get worked up if the kids start early?”
On the other hand, a seemingly opposite aspect of today’s youth scene is highlighted by Don Peck in the March Atlantic, one in which “a combination of entitlement and highly structured childhood has resulted in a lack of independence and entrepreneurialism in many 20-somethings.” In “How a New Era of Joblessness Will Transform America,” Peck cites Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace (Jossey-Bass, 2008), whose research convinced him that Millenials differ from previous generations in needing “almost constant direction” in the workplace: “Many flounder without precise guidelines but thrive in structured situations that provide clearly defined rules.”
Peck continues, glossing Alsop: “Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong, and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out—or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.”
This odd pairing of characteristics, in which young people have become used to acting out, but only in structured environments with facilitators at hand or close by, might call to mind today’s reality shows in which outrageous behavior is carefully recorded by the camera and edited for television viewing. Or better yet, George Orwell’s 1984, in which the “proles” are allowed untrammeled license in sex, drink, and cheap entertainment, while a brutal tyranny controls everything important in life. And that goes a long way toward describing the situation on many campuses today, except of course that the tyranny is not generally brutal, but softly insinuating.
In this issue we take a look inside contemporary campus culture—curricular, extracurricular, and beyond. A good number of our contributors are in their twenties, still in college or only recently graduated; others speak from years of campus experience.
Unlike poor Charlotte Simmons, foundering in the first months of her freshman year and hiding from her parents the chaos and perversity she finds all about her, the eight contributors to our “Student Life” symposium—all student editors from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Collegiate Network—have enough experience to speak clearly and honestly about what they observe of themselves and others on their varied campuses, whether it be ennui or ecstasy, politics or promiscuity, raging or religion.
As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia a few years ago, Karen Agness (“For Members Only: Feminism on Campus Today”) discovered that feminism comes only in shades of Left (like the reading matter of the butler in the English comedy—everything from the Guardian to the New Statesman). No moderate or conservative version exists, for feminism delivered through women’s centers and women’s studies inevitably entails denigrating traditional female roles, denying sex differences, and implying that true fulfillment lies only in career. Realizing this drove Agness to found her own conservative alternative—the Network of enlightened Women.
Be prepared for some startling and fearlessly non-PC insights from composer and University of Arizona music professor Daniel Asia (“Diminuendo: Classical Music and the Academy”) as he uses the marginalization of classical music in the contemporary academy, including in music departments, to open a window on the soul of today’s students. Asia argues that rock, pop, and even jazz are superficial when compared to classical music, with its richness and depths, but the ability of young people to listen and experience it is eroding. “This generation hardly knows how to think, but it certainly doesn’t know how to feel,” he laments.
As a teacher, David Solway (“Desperately Seeking Everett: Some Thoughts on the Hermeneutics of Reading”) also sees a decline in skills, in his case what he calls “readerly destitution.” “In effect,” he writes, “we are now dealing with a generation for whom Twitter has banished James Joyce to the remainder bin of culture.” Solway has not given up, however, but has developed some fascinating techniques for getting students to enter the deeper realms of literary analysis.
Ashley Thorne, a recent graduate of The King’s College and NAS’s director of communications (“Beating the Apple Tree: How the University Coerces Activism”), describes what is being offered in the curriculum in place of all that has been lost—current preoccupations such as “social justice” and “sustainability,” not taught legitimately as subjects needing analysis and definition, but as unbalanced propaganda with an eye to recruit activists for the Cause.
According to John Hundscheid, however (“Raising Cain: The University Student and the Politics of Protest”), a junior at The King’s College, the resurgence of activism on campuses today is more about the rush of narcissistic self-expression, and can be traced to the very absence of real education in philosophical deliberation to which Thorne alludes.
Finally, David French (“Decadence, Scorn, and the Decline of Christian Practice on Campus”), senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, former head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Iraq War veteran, and frequent commentator on academic life, reports on new data that reveals unequivocally the decline of religious practice among college students. French attributes this to the rampant hedonism of collegiate life today, as well as to the ridicule and condescension heaped on religious organizations, especially of the evangelical variety. A Supreme Court decision is pending as to whether such groups have the right to set standards of behavior for their members or must be open to everyone on campus, as is being demanded, something which would of course destroy their efficacy.
For the back of the book we have two poems, a debut by our managing editor Felicia Sanzari Chernesky and a contribution evoking a road not taken from our poetry editor Robert Pack, and a pair of book reviews. Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy, about the author’s undergraduate years at Princeton in the early 1980s, just about the time that NAS was getting underway in that very town, supports everything conservatives have ever said about the destruction of the academy. David Tubbs’s review of a collection of essays by Isaiah Berlin points up his insights into the nature of freedom and the crucial difference between pluralism and relativism, distinctions that could serve as useful ballast to the odd coupling of license and rigidity in higher education today. Finally, NAS president and AQ editor Peter Wood offers another round of “Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.”