Thursday, June 09, 2005

A view of your local campus...

Tom Wolfe has written a novel capturing life at your local elite college. In my experience he's right on the mark.

VDH's Private Papers :: The Right Stuff: "That Wolfe is, as his ageist detractors never fail to point out, a 74-year-old Southern man, only makes his accomplishment all the more impressive. His eyes and ears are as sharp as ever. Friday nights at his fictional Dupont University, as at any school, bump with profane nursery rhymes (popularly known as gangster rap) and shrieks of girlish delight at manly antics. Wolfe notices that young men consider it a matter of duty to watch ESPN in 3-hour blocks, even when it means being up as early as ten-thirty. (My roommates went beyond the call by placing a second TV atop the main one, for ESPN-2.) He notices that the Mashed Potato or whatever dance they did in ancient days has become The Act, Clothed. Here is a sound that every college student recognizes: that terrible ascending chime of AOL Instant Messenger ringing into dorm hallways from every room. And below the computer is a nest of wires attached to the “techie alphabet toys…the PC, the TV, the CD, DVD, DSL, VCR, MP4…each asleep rattlesnake-style with a single tiny diode-green eye open….” Wolfe paints a portrait true to life itself, composed of hundreds of acute social observations, garnered through years of research on nearly a dozen campuses. "

"One passage explores how campus parlance has the F-word as an exclamation (“F!”), a noun (“You silly F!”), an imperative expressing contempt (“F that”), or an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective. But if you think that’s F-ing insightful, observe that the S-word has become a synonym for everything: possessions (“Where’s your S?”), lies or misleading explanations (“Are you S-ing me?”), drunk (“S-faced”), trouble (“in deep S”), ineptitude (“couldn’t play point guard for S”), care about (“give a S”), ignorance (“he doesn’t know S”), hopeless situation (“up S Creek”), disappointment (“oh, S!”), startling (“holy S!”), et cetera (“and massages and S”), very (“mean as S”), violence (“before the S hit the fan”), verbal abuse “(don’t give me S”), self-importance (“he thinks he’s some S”), and feces, literally (“S”). Wolfe records 32 usages. I’ve personally heard all 32 of them as part of my higher education, but I’d never reflected on the phenomenon quite so vividly."

I've spent enough time around college dorm rooms to know this is dead on.

"But did they have Girls Gone Wild way back when? How about roofies, ecstasy, coed bathrooms, proliferating sex columnists, AIDS? (One thing remains constant: since 1980, about 45% of students have reported an excessive fondness for drink.) Slang, too, bespeaks campus change. I consulted Connie Eble, a lexicographer of college slang at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In 1974, she says, students there were asked to list what they considered “good, current campus slang.” Thirty years later, they were asked again. The 2004 study found that 95% of the terms from 1974 were no longer used. (Put another way, only 5% of the slang words survived.) “Bad,” which in ’74 meant “good,” now means “bad” again. The word for “impressive” or “interesting” is “tight.” To express approval, avoid “That’s cosmic!” Try “Off the heezy fo’ sheezy.”

The study also found that these days, “words are more explicitly sexual and derogatory.” Disco-era sorority sisters may have disliked being called “foxy mamas,” but less so, I’m sure, than “sorostitutes.” Worse is the term butterface, a ‘female with an attractive figure but a less-than-appealing face.’ (As in “…everything but her face.”) But that language should become more sexualized is appropriate seeing that everything else on campus has. Sexual liberation is no longer a movement, but brisk business. A new student-run porn magazine with real students has sold tens of thousands of copies at Boston University. “We wanted Boink to represent college and all that college is,” says the editor, not unreasonably. At my alma mater, adult film producers would drive up from Los Angeles to host parties in which their actors performed with—on—our students. The story made the cover of Rolling Stone. There is more of this on the way. But we’re supposed to think this is all old hat? What about the speech codes? And the aggressive political correctness?

Wolfe, of course, notices these, too. One day at Dupont U., a class is shown a photograph of bullfighting and a girl lets slip, “That—is— horrible! It’s—so—wrong!” “That’s your reaction to a culture different from your own?” snaps the professor. “Spanish culture is far older than ours, by a factor of millennia…. Would you favor us with a list of alien cultures you find most objectionable?” The students chuckle while Charlotte absorbs the lesson: “Denigration of another culture, especially one whose people are less well off than your own, and referring to anything as evil, which would indicate you might very well have religious convictions, were more socially unacceptable at Dupont than cruelty to animals.”

Political correctness, along with literary postmodernism (“B.S.”), radical feminism, and an obsession with race appear in Charlotte Simmons just as they appear on nearly every American college campus. And because this appearance is unpleasant to those politically disposed to defend them as signs of progress, Wolfe has been denounced for writing a jeremiad disguised as a novel. Wolfe is “a right-wing scold, a moralizing antique, William Bennett in an ice-cream suit,” said the Chicago Sun-Times’s Henry Kisor, echoing other liberal critics. In fact, such a deluge of this kind of criticism greeted the publishing of Charlotte Simmons that the deluge itself became a news item. But these literati are reacting exactly like those university presidents who insist on continuing Byzantine and morally shocking racial quotas while demanding even more insistently that these policies remain secret. Wolfe is telling it like it is. If his liberal critics don’t like what they see, their quarrel is with the universities, not Mr. Wolfe.

In truth, the university has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. For instance, the number of women enrolled in higher education rose from 5,035,862 in 1975 to 9,263,000 in 2003, an increase of 84%. (Male enrollment rose by 15%.) Minority undergraduate enrollment increased from 16.3% to 30.1% between 1976 and 2001. But perhaps the greatest transformation is this: the activist students and junior faculty of the ’60s and ’70s are today’s department chairs and administrative grandees. And they have been working hard to refashion the campus in their image. The result? A survey of 183 colleges shows that in four departments—English literature, political science, religious studies, and philosophy—more than 80% of the faculty identifies as liberal, and no more than 5% identifies as conservative. In sociology departments, 0% identify as Republicans. (One lonely discipline seems to resist the spirit of progress: agriculture.) Federal Electoral Commission filings report the first- and second-ranking organizations in the country in terms of per capita contributions to the Kerry ’04 campaign: the University of California and Harvard, respectively.

The one-party university promotes intellectual rigor with the sort of success achieved by the one-party state. This helps explain why the Larry Summers affair at Harvard became a show trial. The outrage…the self-effacement…the formal reprimands promulgated in large halls via secret ballot—it's enough to make you a believer in what Roger Kimball called the “Sovietization of intellectual life, where the value or truth of a work is determined not by its intrinsic qualities but by the degree to which it supports a given political line.” The spectacle of radical feminists savaging and humiliating Summers—while pledging to tolerate campus bullying no longer—is proof enough that the supposed oppressed are in control of academia’s commanding heights. But Wolfe is as alive to the comedy as to the tragedy of the American university. “Queer Theory” and “Ethnic Separatist Studies” remind one less of Leninism than the 19th century’s numerology and phrenology, in that they both discourse in bizarre pseudo-scientific lingo about things that don't exist. Still, the high priests of the academic occult have been successful enough at churning out half-educated true believers to ensure that Reason will not reign on campus any time soon."

Read it and weep.

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