ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Monday, August 15, 2005

Big Mess on Campus

I read this BusinessWeek review of Barrett Seaman's Binge, which may explain the fuzzy thinking from both the students and professors at some of our more prominent universities.

At just after 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning in October, Hamilton College's security chief received an emergency phone call. A first-year female student at the elite upstate New York liberal arts school had collapsed after downing 22 one-ounce shots of vodka in a drinking game. The incident was far from unusual: She was one of 20 inebriated students who had to be rushed to the hospital that semester.

There are many such chilling anecdotes in Binge, Barrett Seaman's disturbing account of his odyssey through undergraduate life at the start of the 21st century. Unlike lots of higher-education guides that are aimed at students, this book is clearly meant for parents. And as the subtitle -- What Your College Student Won't Tell You -- suggests, it's a sobering antidote to the institutions' glossy PR broadsides.

[...]His targets range from the continuing struggle to integrate minority students to the growing volume of mental-health woes and the culture of "hooking up" that has largely replaced conventional dating.

The author restricted his research to the most selective colleges. Making no secret of his project, he arranged to live on the campuses of 12 such schools, including Harvard, Middlebury, Duke, Stanford, the University of Virginia, and Canada's McGill. Seaman himself is a product of this world, but of a very different era: He graduated from Hamilton in 1967, when it was still male-only and telecommunications consisted of a pay phone in the dormitory hallway. His efforts to fit into the radically different environment of today's co-ed housing make for some awkward and comical moments. At a Berkeley co-op house, for example, he stumbled across a nude hot-tub party attended by both sexes. "People are pretty casual about nudity here," he was advised.

On balance, though, Binge is more unsettling than amusing, making a persuasive case that in most respects the residential college experience has deteriorated in recent years. Sure, college students have been imbibing to excess for decades. But Seaman provides powerful evidence that binge drinking is more prevalent and more deadly today. And like Tom Wolfe -- who used similar methods to research his 2004 best-selling novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons -- Seaman takes a dim view of the college sex scene. Not only is the coupling more superficial, but date rape is also up. One of his few encouraging findings: Use of hard drugs is down.

The decline in academic rigor that Seaman documents is more disturbing, in some ways, than his accounts of the party scene. Partly in response to grade inflation, many students spend surprisingly little time studying. That trend has been accentuated by the widespread elimination of Friday classes, which means the hard-partying kicks off on Thursday night. Cheating is also all too common, reports Seaman, citing a study by a Middlebury psychologist in which an outright majority of students admitted to it. And in another acceleration of a long-term trend, many undergrads have little meaningful contact with their professors, especially at big research universities such as Berkeley and Stanford. One reason: a system that rewards aspiring professors more for research and writing than for what they impart to students.

Yeah, no classes on Friday is a great idea... and grade inflation certainly has become a significant problem at what are supposed to be extremely elite institutions. Unfortunately, you only will get from students what you expect from them. And the "soft bigotry of low expectations" is a plague on our entire education system, not just in the Ivy League... As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, 10 years ago it was better to be a B student in Des Moines, Iowa than an genius in Bangalore, India. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that our kids or our colleges understand how difficult the coming years will be as we truly compete in the global economy.

My question is how do I get the assignment to live on campus as a college student for 12 months?

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler