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That Little Black Dress

Bob Kessler | Friday, April 23, 2010

As our tuk-tuk turned down the dirt road into the center of Vang Vieng (Laos) and I saw the restaurants where televisions were playing old episodes of “Friends;” my face lit up like the top of the Chrysler Building. I was so happy for our arrival at this legendary Southeast Asian mecca of day drinking that one of the Slovenians I was travelling with pointed out the look on my face. I was brimming with excitement.

When I think happiness, I think of moments like this. Moments like the Sunday before Thanksgiving of my senior year when I was lying on the floor of my friends’ apartment, painfully hungover, as they listened to Taylor Swift songs while cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. Moments like my first football game in the student section when (after a decade of sitting with my dad and watching enviously from across the stadium) I was finally thrown in the air in joy following an Irish touchdown.

True happiness is like a Mike Brey fist pump when one of his players knocks down a 3. It’s Desmond seeing Penny for the first time and fainting back to another life when they touch. It’s the taste of malt liquor on your lips at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon; and it’s “a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is ok.”

But are Notre Dame Students really happy?

A couple weeks ago The Daily Beast released its rankings of the “100 Happiest Colleges in America.” Much to my shock and dismay, Notre Dame appeared in these supposedly comprehensive rankings at No. 58. If the happiest colleges in America were put into an NCAA tourney style bracket, we would be a No. 15 seed. To put this in perspective, the overall happiness of Notre Dame Students is comparable to the academic rigors of Purdue University or the gridiron prowess of the Division 1-AA Richmond Spiders.

If we treated the happiness of our students in the same way that we treat success on the football field or in the classroom, I imagine school administrators would have joined Bob Davie in the broadcast booth a long time ago. With Fr. Jenkins calling play-by-play and Mr. Kirk looking over the student section with his binoculars, ESPN would have its best team since Olbermann left to make special comments.

If we’re to believe The Daily Beast, however, then we have to ask ourselves: Why aren’t Notre Dame students happy?

Of course we can start with the obvious reasons. We can talk about single-sex dorms and sweatpants, football losses and cold weather. We can think about the lack of bidets in the residence halls, the proliferation of students taking the Eucharist with their mouths or the unfortunate loss of my beloved radio tower tailgating lot. We can mention Gody jacking 3s, Lane Kiffin recruiting unborn fetuses and grad students whining about whatever’s supposed to go behind Touchdown Jesus, but none of these things will get us closer to a Doc Jensen style unified theory of why Notre Dame students aren’t as happy as McNulty is when he stops drinking.

I believe that the lack of happiness amongst Notre Dame students shouldn’t be blamed on all of these external factors, but on the students themselves. More specifically, the lower happiness rankings could be an outcome of our quest to pad stats and improve the perception of academic prestige by recruiting students who would rather spend a Friday night studying Orgo in the library than singing “Love Story” at The Backer.

This numbers game creates institutional dysfunction by favoring students for whom Notre Dame is not a dream. Of course we need our fair share of Ivy and Stanford rejects, but the obsession with academic rankings and aspirational peers creates the risk that each increasingly smarter freshmen class will have higher numbers of students that aren’t attending their dream school; students that aren’t as happy as they could be. While some of these students will turn out to be great members of the Notre Dame community, we can’t afford to roll the dice on classes full of them.

I’m concerned because Notre Dame needs students that truly understand and appreciate what makes this place special. We need students that know how much Rudy struggled to get here, and students that go out of their way to show off their student ID to their grandparents. We need students that understand how “work hard, party hard” doesn’t mean doing homework a couple hours before kickoff; and yes, we need students that have long been waiting for the day when they too can be thrown in the air with joy after a Notre Dame touchdown.

We need students whose admission to Notre Dame is one of those exceptional moments that make them truly happy.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just overthinking a bogus set of rankings from a website whose headlines this week have included “Rise of the Fembots” and “The Queering of Ryan Seacrest.” Maybe you can’t put a ranking on happiness, and maybe it is just an A on an Orgo test after five straight weekend nights of studying. Maybe I am wrong — but at least I’ve had fun writing about it.

Bob Kessler is a 2009 graduate currently teaching English in China.  He feels lucky to have had such an awesome experience writing for this paper over the past five semesters, and would like to thank everybody that has been reading.  You can continue to read his work at www.thingsnotredamestudentslike.com and www.the17thgrade.com, and can always contact him at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.