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College: A grand experiment in socialization

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, April 12, 2005

I ran into a horrendous case of writer’s block this week trying to think up a good topic for today’s column. Any of you with access to cable news or the Internet have probably heard enough about the late John Paul II and Terri Schiavo to last you a lifetime. I assure those concerned about the events that I’m simply sick of media saturation of those two issues but at the same time, share concern and remorse for both. The thought of media saturation has also ruled out another column on Social Security reform. If you still believe the arguments of democrats after months of debate in which they have not proposed any reasonable alternatives to the private account plan, then there is nothing I can write in this column that can change your mind. Oddly enough, I’ve had other issues on my mind in the past few weeks. Prior to a long day trip out to Washington D.C. for a dinner via busses and a cheap flight out to Dulles, a friend of mine let me borrow Tom Wolfe’s new book “I Am Charlotte Simmons” for the long day of traveling. I had heard from others that he had done an extensive case study of current college social life in upper crest universities through long periods of time he personally spent with students at prestigious campuses such as Duke and the University of North Carolina. He took the results of his real-world case study and created a fictional DuPont University to represent any prestigious medium-sized top 20 university. Wolfe then chose to write about today’s college experience from the perspective of a basketball jock, the fraternity member, a skinny dork that works for the student newspaper and of course Charlotte Simmons.The story is of Charlotte’s culture shock with modern college life. She is the perfect SAT-scoring Valedictorian of a fictional small town in the Appalachia region of North Carolina. The book details her outsider’s perspective on all of the issues that go hand-in-hand with today’s modern experience in college that administrators prefer to keep away from their brochures. These are of course the classic issues of sex, drugs and alcohol. Tom Wolfe explores their socializing effects and to what extent a social hierarchy has developed in college life. Have both now become culturally accepted norms that we are socialized into in our college experience?From the time we were young, we all grew up with a smattering of Hollywood’s depictions of college life before many of us even began drinking. After that, many had their first drinks in high school shortly after the ability to drive gave them some degree of freedom from our parents. Some remained studious until their freshmen year liberated them from the pressure of the college hunt and parental supervision. You could place on a graph the rise of personal freedoms in our culture along with the development of the sex drive. Interestingly enough, both lines would run in a parallel positive slope from ages 16 to 21. Now, throw in the variable of the college experience taking that same student away from parental supervision into a social environment with two hierarchies. Of course, the academic hierarchy is the public hierarchy that parents and administrators publicly encourage. However, there is another hierarchy based on sex, athletic ability, physique, wealth and alcohol tolerance. This hierarchy reigns behind closed doors from Aug. 26 to May 5.How much are we socialized into the college life? For the die-hards, it is going out four nights a week (State, Heartland, Corby’s, Backer), getting wasted and trying to have random hookups normal behavior? I question these things not as your parent, but as someone who has made plenty of decisions I regret over the past four years, many of which I would prefer to never mention publicly. Also, this is not a criticism of Notre Dame, as my visits to state schools have confirmed the moral decay is much worse there. What this book has done for me is given me the opportunity to place myself in the shoes of what a skeptical outsider’s viewpoint may be of the unofficial norms of college life. When you consider our generation’s record numbers of college students, the implications of any socialization on that great a scale could have a huge impact upon the history of this country. How will our generation’s experience in college affect the values we pass on to our children, our marriages and our religious convictions? If socialization of any new values happens in a college environment across such a scale, what will be the consequences? You may think I’m crazy, but reading this book will have you asking yourself the same questions.

Tom Rippinger is a senior political science major. He is a member of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.