I had the chance recently to experience two institutions you wouldn’t think at first glance were alike. Over a few weeks I visited a well-regarded liberal arts college and later a famous casino. The bizarre similarities were both fascinating and disturbing.
The college is bookish, so it’s not surprising that the professors were the top-level entertainers, while the president and his entourage were the intellectual equivalent—if that is conceivable—of Donald Trump or Steve Wynn. However, I was taken aback by the minor role students play on the campus. They seemed elfin compared to the faculty who were either straightforward, hard-working types or “rock stars”. This wasn’t education as I remembered it. When I was in school the teachers were charmingly dull, keeping a respectful distance from the students and vice versa. Nowadays, the atmosphere is casual, if not downright clubby, and centered around the teachers rather than the students—more like junior high school than college. I wondered, truly, what my friend’s son was “betting” and what chances he had, since the “house” was so heavily favored. College life has become an illusory family. How will this prepare him for the future?
What are the stakes?
Students and parents alike seem to be placing on the table not merely a great deal of money, but an enormous amount of time as well—hour after hour, year after year. Yet, what was the house—the college—standing to lose? It seemed to me to be quite uneven.
I pressed my friend about the selection of this particular college to the point that it bugged him. (I learned later that he had let his son decide.) I asked practical questions. What was the average salary of alumni? What students went on to Nobel-type glory? Had any students become famously successful and wealthy (like many of the professors)? Were there accurate stats about grades? (Turns out there weren’t even any grades.) What about intramural-type academic competitions? None of the above. I wondered how a person could make a college decision without data.
Apparently, the dominant criteria today include the social relevance of the programs, ethnic and cultural diversity, and the “buzz” about the place—in other words, public relations. Prestige is conferred to colleges often by image and hand-me-down reputation. However, mold is mold regardless of its age. For instance, this school has had for many years a reputation for “radicalism”, and that figured into my friend’s son’s decision. It seemed sad and even a bit ridiculous that a “radical” place would be chosen in such a conventional, middle-class way. “My son feels comfortable here.” I’m sure there were deeper reasons, but how many and how deep, I didn’t ask. The process seemed almost offhand, as if the heart stopping amount of money—not to mention four years of prime time human life—had the same importance as a vacation budget.
On the other hand, most colleges use primarily statistical criteria for student selection. Like gamblers and tourists, prospective students drift from one resort-like campus to another, while the colleges profile them down to the last demographic, grade and SAT score. Bit one-sided to me.
Herr Professor Faustus
A couple of weeks later, my friend and I drove to Atlantic City and hit a few casinos. What a disconcerting juxtaposition. The uncanny similarities include the “professorial” pomposity of the dealers and spooky vibe of the management whose professionalism surpasses that of their officious academic counterparts. There are even amusing security staff parallels. The food is better, but not as much as you might think.
The recent economy has been rough on the casinos. A few of the gaming rooms were almost empty at midday, not unlike an afternoon college chemistry lab. (Students use their computers in their dorms, thereby spending incredible amounts of time there—quite different from the 70s. In my day we roamed all over campus when we weren’t entombed in the library.)
So, is the one-armed bandit the internet computer terminal? Indeed, what are the true stakes? A Faustian promise of internet-based omniscience, like the casino jackpots that occur so rarely as to be immaterial? I know what happens to chronic gamblers—they die young and broke. How long does it take—four years? What happens to the contemporary student’s soul?
And the remoteness, the emptiness, the pallor of the faces—be they mature adults in Atlantic City or young adults at college—was chilling. The place-of-no-place quality. Here I am—nowhere. It is definitely the opposite of a garden.
The true payoff for the kids is, alas, graduation. No wonder they’re happy to leave. Therefore, I felt an adolescent twinge of “the first time” as we pulled onto the turnpike and headed north out of godforsaken Atlantic City (great place to buy gold jewelry, though).
Time to re-evaluate, in my view, the equally godforsaken liberal arts colleges. For example, bolster up science and technology. The hundreds of state-run engineering schools in the US are definitely not casino-like. No “celebrity” professors, no “rock star” college presidents. But the relatively inexpensive educations lead to great jobs in important global industries. These would point to a brighter future than do such courses as “Appreciative Inquiry”, “Pop Culture Hegemony” or “The World Café”. The kids can catch those acts later at Atlantic City, Foxwood or Vegas.