Ivy Casinos

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.

Who benefits?

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.

Who wins?

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.

Qui bono?

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 11th, 2008 at 9:37 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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8 Responses to “Ivy Casinos”

  1. Excellent! Great read. I’ve got two sons who are very successful. They went to state schools, worked hard, paid their half, and are happy.

    I used to teach school and quit cause parents wanted me to hand out good grades. I thought you had to earn them.

  2. john acuff said:

    Simply awesome. I am 68 a country lawyer and have two sons who are lawyers. Both went to Sewanee a really tough and good school before law school. I see the children of friends doing just like your friend’s son. I was paying so we had significant input. Keep on letting the sunshine in to our world. It is enough to forgive you for taking over Herronwood. I will buy a bit from you again this year.

    You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. I am posting your message with credit
    john acuff
    country lawyer

  3. Barbara said:

    Very interesting analysis. Thank god my daughter is through that period. She attended Lebanon Valley College in PA. It was the right size for her, coming from the rural Eastern Shore of MD and she excelled. The big fish in a little pond concept. She became very self-confident, had friendly connections with her professors (they even gave the students their home number if they were having trouble!) No “rock stars”. And she grew in leaps and bounds in self-confidence, independence and self-assurance. The price was hard but managable for us. A drop in the bucket today. But my granddaughter is fast coming up. Thanks for the food for thought.

  4. Bill Martin said:

    The graduates of these “colleges” will soon be complaining that the guys on the assembly line are making more than these “college graduates”

  5. Earthbound said:

    Examination of a single liberal arts college campus does not the the entire landscape of liberal arts colleges illuminate.

  6. Jon said:

    Excellent points in your post and I agree 100% with your opinion. Down right sad to me that students in colleges of this type are not getting a real education, because they are totally removed from the reality of mainstream America. As a result they will have to suffer and then get a true education later in the school of “hard knocks” after they graduate.

    BTW, your blog has become one of my favorites and I have added a link to it on my own little blog…hoping you don’t mind.

    Hope y’all have a happy holiday season and all the best to you in the new year.

    Jon at Mississippi Garden blog

  7. Dan said:

    How true, those poor parents

  8. Roy McGinnis said:

    Another spectacular, well-written essay. I agree with most of the points and relish the manner in which they are writen; however, (maybe this is self defense since I am an English teacher), I disagree with the slant toward engineering schools and the allergic reaction toward liberal arts colleges. The problem is not that right brain is superior to left brain. The problem lies in the moral decay that is embedded in most liberal arts colleges and universities, the “fluff” or pop psychology, the dishonest and mislabeled term “liberal” that the colleges claim, and the moral relativism that does nothing more than create a culture of slovenliness and decadence. Since the humanities has lost its mooring and moral center (read: we have tried to teach morality without Truth), then naturally, engineering schools, that seem bilssfully disconnected from the whole mess, act as an oasis for students that want to get something done and see the labors of their hands rather than spend four years in a moral quagmire of relativism.

    Please keep writing! I enjoy the thought provoking essays. We need more or your honest, no-nonsense approach to life–and, of course, gardening! Makes me want to buy your gardening products too!

    Roy McGinnis
    Mars Hill, North Carolina

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