Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Campus Life

I recently finished Helen Horowitz's Campus Life, a history of the campus life of the American undergraduate. The book was published in 1987, so as another scholar mentioned via Facebook, it's not exactly up-to-date. Certainly, there have been changes in college life in the interim 25 years: Residence hall life is considerably plusher, the internet has changed life on and off campus, and the preppy look she describes as ascendant in 1983 has contracted to its New England roots. But what struck me forcefully is how little the underlying college culture has changed. Horowitz breaks students into three categories: Joe Colleges, who tend to come from the upper strata, in college to have a pleasant social experience, and are big joiners; the outsiders, who either can't afford, are refused, or don't wish to "join" and instead focus on their schoolwork; and the rebels, either political or artistic, who had their moments of glory in the 1930s and 1960s. At the end of the book she describes the New Outsiders, ascendant in the 1980s, who are focused on their grades, albeit for vocational reasons rather than as mere signifiers of learning. To the extent that some of them are joiners, it's because the activity will help them get ahead. Sound familiar? Here's more:
  • In addition to including students from lower-class backgrounds who are aiming at upward mobility, the New Outsiders also include middle- and middle-upper-class students concerned about downward mobility
  • A tight job market that increasingly requires graduate degrees, although law school is looking less desirable as "firms are saturated" (p. 286)
  • Grade inflation, grade-grubbing, and cheating
  • Participation in extracurriculars, including Greek life, because it looks good on the resume
  • High levels of student anxiety, coupled with "partying" that seems more like the pursuit of fun than actual fun
  • "Today's New Outsiders seem content to remain emotionally and economically dependent on their parents" (p. 271)
Has college culture really been stable for a quarter-century? And, if so, what will dislodge the current culture?

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