The New York Times Magazine is hosting an essay contest called “College as America used to understand it is coming to an end,” in which current students are asked to respond to an article by historian Rick Perlstein called “What’s the Matter with College?” Remarking that “[c]ollege campuses seem to have lost their centrality” in the national consciousness, Perlstein asks, “[w]hy do college students no longer lead the country? Why does student life no longer seem all that important?”
Perlstein doesn’t name any one culprit responsible for the demise of college as he knew it as an undergrad at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s. Back then, a nostalgic friend of Perlstein’s writes, “the adventure of going to college consisted of a kind of freedom that you couldn’t imagine until you turned 18, [when] you were no longer under adult control, and you made your own schedule… This is the most liberating moment Americans have in life.” But for Perlstein, college no longer represents such a discrete experience:
Just as the distance between the campus and the market has shrunk…so has the gap between childhood and college—and between college and the “Real World” that follows. To…just about anyone over 30, going to college represented a break, sometimes a radical one—and our immediate post-college lives represented a radical break with college. … Not so for these kids.
Perlstein contrasts that sentiment of newfound, unbridled freedom with the descriptions of current University of Chicago students, who classify their college experience as “infantilizing,” “emasculating,” and marked by a “culture of enervation.” Lost are the days of exposure to new ideas, engagement in new discussions, and the chance to “argue day and night in the lounge” of the dormitory.
Perlstein doesn’t get into free speech on campus, but the phenomena he describes seem inextricably linked to the ascendency of speech codes and the tendency for administrators to act in loco parentis. Indeed, seemingly routine experiences like arguing all night in a dorm lounge are increasingly under attack from administrators pushing policies aimed at ensuring welcoming environments for all, to the detriment of the open flow of ideas. Just this week, FIRE announced a victory over a Colorado State University policy that limited just the kinds of residence hall conversations that made college life for Perlstein so rewarding.
It will be interesting to see how today’s 18- to 22-year olds assess their college experiences. Will they agree that college has fallen from its prized place in American social and cultural life, or will they think Perlstein’s commentary reflects a wistful nostalgia for days of yore? The winning essay will be published in the college issue of The New York Times Magazine, on September 30, and five runner-up essays will be published on nytimes.com/magazine.