WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH RICK PERLSTEIN'S ESSAY? Rick Perlstein is one of my favorite journalists, and I read his excellent blog religiously. So I was excited when I found out that he had written an article for the New York Times Magazine about the university I currently attend. Unfortunately, I found the article itself deeply disappointing. Maybe the title, "What's the Matter With College," should have been my first clue.
To start with, the idea of using the University of Chicago as a typical college experience is something like judging the experience of the average car owner by interviewing a guy in rural Idaho who drives a biodiesel-fueled Yugo -- he has his reasons and his choice is admirable, but it's also hardly typical. The UofC is a great place and I'm glad I don't go somewhere else, but it is a very odd place. We print t-shirts that say "where fun comes to die" and "hell does freeze over," and people who choose to go there are almost all very academically-focused and interested in ideas.
Perlstein acknowledges this, but then spends his time interviewing people who find this atmosphere oppressive and devotes most of his space to people who complain that the university isn't creative enough and that everyone is unhappy. Only after this long series of complaints does he tell us that most students he talked to were quite happy. For whatever reason, he sympathizes with the discontented and so, despite the fact that most students he talked to were happy, the only ones he introduces us to are a right-wing wannabe venture capitalist and a student who he flat out insults, calling her a "cog in the organization -- specifically, the bureaucracy that schedules students' self-exploration". She may have "a social conscience and a mature grasp of the extraordinary privileges life has handed her" but, bizarrely, her busy schedule is somehow "infantalizing". She does community service and advises prospective students and is deeply, genuinely happy -- but somehow that's bad?
Perlstein then goes on to suggest that college has been degraded from what it was in the '60s (because people my age haven't had enough people tell us that our generation doesn't measure up to our parents') because kids no longer are socially awakened by their school experience. I wonder who he's been talking to. I know plenty of people who came form rural backgrounds and did find college to be a big culture shift, but I also wonder if this ideal 1960s college scenario of hanging out with famous jazz musicians and authors was ever a big part of most people's college experience. Did the "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" ever reflect reality? And if colleges are becoming more integrated with the larger world, is that a bad thing? I don't think so. In fact, the very college activists he talked to (some of whom I'd guess I know quite well) are working hard to push the university, historically at odds with the community around it, to be more open and engaged with its surroundings. If colleges are no longer separate mystical worlds, I'd say that's what's right with college, not what's the matter.