What’s the Matter with College?

A while ago the New York Times Magazine had a college essay contest. “In the turbulent late ’60s and early ’70s, college campuses played a major role in the culture and politics of the era. Today, according to author and historian Rick Perlstein, colleges have lost their central place in the broader society and in the lives of undergraduates. ”

The contest has long expired. The prompt essay, by Rick Perlstein, is still up.
Wow. Here’s something that get’s you thinking critically about your environs.

You really should read the whole thing, but here’s a tasty morsel:

There is something that these very different students share. Just as the distance between the campus and the market has shrunk (perhaps not that surprising at Chicago, home of the market-based approach to almost everything), so has the gap between childhood and college – and between college and the real world that follows. To me, to Doug Mitchell, to just about anyone over 30, going to college represented a break, sometimes a radical one – and our immediate postcollege lives represented a radical break with college. Some of us ended up coming back to the neighborhood partly for that very fact: nostalgia for four years unlike any we had experienced or would experience again. Not for these kids.

Hamilton Morris, with his hip, creative parents, is an extreme case of a common phenomenon: college without the generation gap. (As I write this at a coffee shop near campus, a kid picks up her cellphone – ”Hi, Dad!” – and chats amiably for 15 minutes. ”When we went to college,” a dean of students who was a freshman in 1971 tells me, ”you called on Sunday – the obligatory 30-second phone call on the dorm phone – and you hoped not to hear from them for the rest of the week.”)

Morris is an exaggeration too of another banal new reality. You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who shared, say, 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.

Why aren’t people paying attention to the campuses? Because, as a discrete experience, ”college” has begun to disappear. My radical, alienated friends brought up the University of Chicago’s marketing materials: 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. But college no longer looks like that. They wondered how long the admissions office thought it could get away with it before students started complaining they’d been swindled. I posed the question to a brilliant graduating senior, someone I’ve been friends with for years. ”They’re assuming that the marketing is for students,” he explained. ”It’s not. It’s for parents.”