University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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Saturday, February 19, 2005



For America’s young, affluent, and entitled, college has become that obscure object of desire: a place and experience so burdened with romantic and worldly and self-transformative expectation that no campus could ever hope to measure up.

Part of this is the manufactured admissions crisis, which, as David Brooks, Gregg Easterbrook and others have pointed out, serves to get students and their parents all excited and scared about the process of getting in to college, and thus contributes to their heightened expectations for this amazingly precious and difficult-of-access experience.

But more broadly this impossible burden of expectation is part of the competitive, advertising-clogged, emotionally inflated atmosphere of wealthy America, where, whether it’s a fractional personal jet, a thrillingly exclusive private ski club, or an elite campus, the crucial contract you’re entering into is that you’re willing to lay down an insane amount of money in exchange for inexpressibly transcendent privileges.

Like so many other expensive postmodern American goods, college has (as David Foster suggests in a comment to Part I of this post), oversold - and misdescribed - itself. Its market-driven zeal for students, expressed in sumptuous brochures and films and webpages, combines with a threadbare sense of its actual identity, to produce for many of the students who end up attending it a feeling of emptiness and betrayal.

For beyond coffee bars and other bright entertainments, what is actually there? What is actual there? Human, real-time pedagogical exchange dwindles as students and faculty are encouraged to take their courses online, or as courses drain of content and professors lose their sense of calling. Grade inflation removes difficulty, substance, and achievement from the exercise. “College” becomes one more postmodern simulacrum, a spectacle and an enactment rather than a reality.

Yet if college is peculiarly anything at all, if it does have a distinctive identity, it must be that “college” designates that historically revered location where a sustained and organized institutional effort is made to respond to people’s hunger for actuality, for the real, for seriousness about life. At the core of the liberal arts is an informed, dispassionate, uncompromising, and courageous commitment to clarity about life.

Instead of a commitment to the truth, there’s all this bad faith on campus, which sensitive students immediately pick up on. There’s the hypocrisy of presenting curricular chaos and gut courses as if they’re about creativity and variety; the mercenary expansion of popular programs regardless of their intrinsic worth; the sometimes sentimental, sometimes cynical worship of youth and of novelty as such, with all of the obvious consequences in terms of sordid sports programs and doofus distance learning initiatives.

The good news is that pockets of intellectual seriousness continue to exist at most respectable American universities. To find them, students should look for the following markers among faculty members:

1. A belief in value judgments.
2. A subordination of the professor’s personality to the subject matter.
3. A willingness to teach one’s students, rather than show them films, or break them into little chat groups and have done with them for the day.
4. A universal rather than tribal world view.
5. A modest self-presentation, along with modest claims for the explanatory power of the faculty member’s field.