Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Is college what it used to be?

A couple of weeks ago, I took my two kids to the campus where I went to school - at least, as I vaguely remember - I was enrolled there. The visit was a baldfaced ruse to predispose them to follow in my own choice of academic footsteps, for reasons that escape me. If I was in fact so loyal to my alma mater, one would think I might have repaid the roughly 2,000 outstanding parking tickets I still owe there, or returned the Dean's shower curtain.

At any rate, the place hasn't changed much. Oh, they've added a few buildings and one of those nancy-boy food courts copied from the big shopping malls, but it is mostly a no-nonsense place to have learning pounded into your skull.

I was even surprised to note that there were less bars around the vicinity than there were in my day, although tattoo and piercing parlors seem to have taken up the slack.

Elsewhere, though, the times, they are a-changin'. In fact, one national education official says that colleges are engaged in an "arms race" to offer the most foolish amenities to attract the dollars of superficial scholars - and he may have a point. Colleges across the country are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop perks that have nothing to do with a classroom.

Columnist Katherine Parker reports that Haverford College in Pennsylvania has taken to offering "lifestyle options" - including dorms with coed bathrooms and bedrooms. As if a guy couldn't wait for marriage and fatherhood to wait hours for a turn in the john.

Ohio State is said to be building a student center nicknamed "Taj Mahal" complete with indoor kayaking, massage, batting cages and 50-person climbing walls for bored academians.

The University of Southern Mississippi is building its own waterpark full of rides on campus. The University of Pennsylvania has built a simulator allowing students to play 52 of the world's most famous golf courses in virtual reality. Penn State added its own cineplex-style movie theater with surround sound and a live coral reef. The University of Vermont built an artificial indoor pond to refrigerate as a skating rink. The University of Cincinnati plans a "mall-style" Main Street to cater to students' every retail and service whim. Schools all over are developing their own trendy restaurants and nightclubs.

I suppose some things haven't changed - the economics prof who has spent a little too much time in the hemp lab and insists on calling you "Buttercup" all semester; the book store that charges you $182.96 for an algebra textbook that it offers to buy back four months later for 16 cents; the insane roommate who watches Japanese cartoons and sobs all night; the classmates who primarily seem to major in Nickel Draws Night.

Then there are the classes - you know, the ones that the parents footing the bills assume are going to be boringly useful stuff like math, science, literature and technology...

Au contraire, mon frere.

The University of Michigan offered a fall course titled: "How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation." The class was to examine gay identity by studying Broadway musicals, "muscle culture" and interior design. What, no floral arrangement? And if you need a class to know how to be, you probably aren't.

Occidental College counters with "The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie," a class designed to discuss racism as it applies to Barbie doll toys. Viva la Raza, Mr. Potato Head!

Johns Hopkins offered, "Sex, Drugs & Rock N Roll in Ancient Egypt." That Cleopatra was such a party babe.

The University of Illinois added "Gangster Films in American Culture." Just let 'em walk through South Chicago some night.

TCU's curriculum included "Sociology of Weddings." Must be a "Scared Straight" sorta approach?

Mary Baldwin College came up with this winner of a course, "The History of Furniture." I'm not laying around on the sofa, I'm researching my thesis in couch potatoism, dude!

"The Art of Walking" at Centre College had students read poems about walking and then regularly accompany the prof as he walked his dog. Pooper scoopering for extra credit, anyone?

Lofty Georgetown offered the popular "Philosophy and Star Trek." What, no "Existentialism and the Three Stooges?!"

The University of Wisconsin's course list included "Daytime Serials: Family and Social Rules." Great - a kid really wants to learn his values from soap operas, ey?

The University of Iowa contributed a course in "The American Vacation." Isn't Iowa City enough of an escape from sanity?

Brown University taught, "American Degenerates." Must have something to do with political science...

And the University of California at Berkeley taught the granddaddy of lame classes, "Cinema and the Sex Act." I assume that has to do with dirty movies and not what your parents used to do during the second half of the Godzilla double feature at the drive-in, on which it would be best for you not to speculate.

I hope that college students are more savvy than some of our universities give them credit for. I'd like to think that they look at academics, career placement, student-to-professor ratio, teaching talent, hand-on opportunity, cultural resources and all of that silly stuff, instead of just the important elements of choosing a college.

Like jacuzzis in the dorm - um, excuse me, residence facilities. Like whether the faculty includes a bartender with a hot hand for the Bull Blasters. Like student-to-pedicurist ratio. And like plenty of lollipop-lob elective classes about important subjects for today's society - TV and porn.

Is it too late, I wonder, to go back to school?

* Reach the editor at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com