Animal House revisited
He may not have as many tattoos as Tommy Lee, but like the aging rocker, former Time magazine correspondent Barrett Seaman also decided to go back to school recently, almost 40 years after graduating from Hamilton College. Seaman spent two weeks each at a dozen selective collegesincluding Harvard, Stanford, Middlebury, University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin, and his own alma materliving in the dorms, staying up into the wee hours with undergrads, and seeing for himself how their college experiences differed from his own. Some of his findings, which appear in his new book Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You (John Wiley & Sons, $25.95), are amusingly familiar: Yep, students still stay up late, streak across the Quad, and revel in what they view as their irrevocable license to let off steam. Drinking, sex, and drugs are ever present. But there's more of it all than Seaman expecteda lot more. And after spending so much time on campus recently, he has some provocative ideas for how to make college a little more like the good old days. Seaman spoke recently with U.S. News senior editor Justin Ewers.
Q: What made you go back to college?
A: I've been a trustee at Hamilton for the past 16 years and I've chaired the student affairs committee on the board, so I was looking at student life through that one particular prism. The first thing I wanted to do was go up and spend two weeks living with the students at Hamilton, so I could really understand it from their perspective. That was the eye-opener. It was kind of like being allowed to fly around the dark side of the moon. What I found was a pretty universal culture. It didn't matter whether it was rural Middlebury College or urbane Berkeley or Harvardthe student culture was pretty much the same.
Q: That culture, according to your book, seems to be saturated with booze and marked by a disconnect between faculty and students. Is it really that different from your experience in college in the '60s?
A: Yes, absolutely. We had our excesses, God knows. We drank a lot. I was in a fraternity, and those house party weekends we thought were pretty raucous affairs . . . we were really stupid about drinking and driving. But when I was in college only one student went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning in my entire four years. At Middlebury, in the 2002-2003 school year, 100 kids did. At Dartmouth, 200 did. Harvard in one month in October 2003, sent 44 students to the health center. It's an extraordinarily routine event, and it scares the bejesus out of administrators. They would say pretty openly, "You know, every night I go to bed and pray that when I wake up there isn't some kid dead." It's a recipe for disaster. The relationship between alcohol and date rape is just there: I think statistically, well over 90 percent of the date rapes involve alcohol, and most of the time it's when both parties are drunk.
Q: What's changed to make students drink so dangerously?
A: I think in the 1980s when the national 21 drinking age went into effect. When I was in college we'd invite faculty members and their wives to our cocktail parties. You felt like a grownup and you ended up, as a result, acting like a grownup. You could also see that adults could have two drinks and then stop. Now they don't see that because no adult who doesn't want to be sued is going to be anywhere near an underage drinker.
Q: You make the somewhat counterintuitive case that one solution might be lowering the drinking age to 18 again. How likely is that?
A: I think it's unlikely to happen because it's just very hard for a politician to come out with a sound bite in defense of lowering the drinking age. And MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] and the people who were instrumental in getting that law passed in the first place will land on them like a ton of bricks. At some point, I hope they will at least think about it. There are some people, including John McCardell, who was the former president of Middlebury, who's trying to look at this seriously, to put together some white papers and start to build the political groundwork to go back to this. Here's a guy who spent 13 years as president of a very prestigious college saying this is bad policy. It's not that you're in favor of younger people drinking a lot. It's just that this isn't the answer. This isn't doing it.
Q: Beyond excessive drinking, you also make the case that students are disconnected from academics, from the faculty, and from each other.
A: Students are not working as hard as they used to. Grade inflation is a real thing. I've had students tell me, if they handed us more work to do, we'd rise to the occasion. If you keep them busy doing what they're supposed to be doing in college they're not going to have time to get in trouble. And that's where the disconnection comes inthe disconnection between faculty and students. There's a kid at Duke who said there's an unwritten contract here which says "We won't bother you if you won't bother us." It's unfortunately quite true, even at these high-end schools.
You expect that at a Wisconsin or a Berkeley or an Indiana. You shouldn't have that at Stanford. And you certainly shouldn't have that at a Hamilton or a Middlebury or a Pomona. It is better at the small colleges, the community is so small it's hard not to know people, but it's still not as intimate a relationship as there was when I was there.
Q: Even with all of today's technology, you still don't see students connecting in the same way?
A: All the tools of connection are here. You've got people IM-ing and everything else. At Stanford, the first day I was there, I sat in on a meeting where the academic computing department was talking about putting in videoconference units into the residence halls, so that they could have instant communications, videoconferencing with students who were in Florence that semester and you go wow, I mean, this is a totally different world.
And yet, despite that capacity to interconnect with each other, people seem to be more isolated into what I call silos. And part of it I think was an overreaction to the diversity that's gone on. There's a natural tendency for all of us to seek out like-minded, like-looking, like-thinking individuals and that's naturally going to go on with 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. Everyone speaks the language of tolerance and assimilation, but under the surface there's not as much of it as there probably should be or that everybody aspires to have.
Q: Some of your observations sound very similar to Tom Wolfe's in his recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, which also deals with the impact of booze and sex and political correctness on campuses today. What did you think of his book?
A: There isn't anything in there that I disagree with. I met or heard about every one of the characters in Charlotte Simmons. But I think he missed some things and I think he got a little hung up on the coed dorms and the sex. It's there, but I don't think it quite dominates life to the extent that he suggests.
The second thing he missed is the whole student affairs overlay. There was not a single student affairs person in the whole book. When Charlotte went into her deep depression, no one even knows or cares; she disappears for about a month. That just doesn't happen. I mean, they'd be all over your case. If that happened to you and you just sort of disappeared into a deep funk, they'd find out and have meetings and spend hundreds of man-hours discussing your case in order to make sure you didn't commit suicide. And yet, none of that happens [in Wolfe's book]. She was just off on her own living in this guy's apartment .
Q: So you don't think there's as much sex on college campuses as Tom Wolfe does?
A: I don't think it's as libertine. He makes it seem like a Roman orgy, as if this is just going on in public all the time. It's much more furtive than that. Yeah, people get drunk at these big parties, but then they kind of slip off somewhere. But it's happening behind closed doors or under the sheets or on a futon somewhere. It's not glamorous.
Q: You also seem concerned by the lack of free time in the schedules of today's college students.
A: Yes, I do worry about that. The motto at Hamilton was "Know thyself." And I don't think in the current college environment that they have time to know themselves. That's a real loss. It goes back to the whole notion of the unexamined life being not worth living. You've got to do that, you've got to examine your own life and figure out who you are and where you're going, and if you don't allow yourself time to do that, you've missed a big opportunity, especially at those critical ages of 18-22.
Q: In spite of some of your worries about today's college kids, you still seem to think they're doing OK, by and large.
A: One thing I wanted to avoid doing was suggesting that in all the mayhem of drinking and smoking marijuana and date rape and stuff that this is a doomed generation. It's not. It does work out most of the time. The girl I don't identify in the book who knocked back 22 shots of vodka and got taken off to the hospital her freshman year, she's now going off to get her Ph.D. in a pretty complicated science. And they're all capable of doing that, as long as they can survive. I came out of this with enormous faith in the students themselves.