Suzanne Fields / April 8, 2011

Crashing Into College

The college acceptance letters have landed. Hysterics have subsided. No more time tearful sessions of “what if?” Parents have come to terms with their disappointments that their achieving, well-adjusted child didn’t get into her first choice because she had only an A-minus average and good but not great SAT scores, and was merely a reporter for the school newspaper. She may be able to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory and read all of “Moby Dick” (including the whale blubber descriptions), but that simply wasn’t enough.

The college acceptance letters have landed. Hysterics have subsided. No more time tearful sessions of “what if?” Parents have come to terms with their disappointments that their achieving, well-adjusted child didn’t get into her first choice because she had only an A-minus average and good but not great SAT scores, and was merely a reporter for the school newspaper. She may be able to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory and read all of “Moby Dick” (including the whale blubber descriptions), but that simply wasn’t enough.

At the interview, when she talked about “coming out of the closet,” she meant only that she had found the right designer jeans and running shoes. She wasn’t gay except in the old-fashioned way of enjoying life. She had never contemplated changing her sex. Her well-adjusted life was a negative, leaving her chasing the curve for insights into suffering.

The college essay had been a particularly badly handled chore. When a school counselor told her to write about her feelings when she felt victimized, she could only tell about the time her mother made her take off her spike heels and skin-tight miniskirt she had found for the junior prom. Mother-daughter conflicts are so yesterday. Freud is definitely out.

So is patriotism, mainstream religion and heterosexuality. Although you’ll get no hard data on college essays that aced it with the admission committees, the odds are that the successful ones were submitted with titles such as “How I Found God and Became an Atheist,” or, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Hooking Up” – or, to impress the environmentalists, “Out to Sea on an Ice Floe Hugging an Endangered Polar Bear.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

The competition this year was fierce. Three million applicants struggled into the pool a year ago, and that’s only slightly more than this year. Numbers will begin to diminish and stabilize over the next decade, but that’s not necessarily good news for your grandchildren, or even your great-grandchildren (to be).

“(The numbers) will remain at a level high enough to have left previous generations agog, and guarantee that our own children will also have the opportunity to obsess on behalf of children yet unborn,” writes Andrew Ferguson in his best-selling book “Crazy U: One’ Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.”

He knows the territory, having seen his son wooed with the flash and filigree of college brochures that now advertise such academic asides as swimming pools, saunas, hot tubs, vegetarian and macrobiotic “food courts,” dorm suites with views of the Green or local street scenes (including the nearest bars), and diversity fairs that include an infinite variety of hyphenated Americans that turned the melting pot into an indigestible stew.

Identity issues galvanize campus politics, and pop culture has replaced history, literature and philosophy as subjects in demand. At one college, Ferguson’s son had only three choices of topic for a mandatory writing class: “History of the 1960s,” TV’s “Mad Men,” and “Intro to Queer Theory.” Jonathan Swift couldn’t have improved on this if he were to write a contemporary trip for Gulliver. But who could define Swiftian? (Or identify Gulliver?)

But if you can’t fight ‘em, join 'em. Kids raised on electronic media have little patience for the long read, and many of the tenured professors who came of age in the Age of Protest prefer to indoctrinate rather than instruct. This gives new meaning to the observation that “the child is father of the man.” (Who wrote that?) Who cares about the lyric when you can dub the words and slam the poetry?

Is any of this important to parents who would risk a debtors’ prison to secure their child a spot in an elite college? Probably not. Some parents pay as much as $40,000 to “counselors” who tell them how to devise a formula for getting into a top school.

The college a child enters has become considerably more important than who teaches what. It’s also about who you meet, the connections you make and whom you can impress in the job interview four years later. Even conservative parents are willing to put aside their political convictions to wedge a child into the “right” school. Besides, life is long, and deep learning can come later. Maybe. But not reading the great books is a great loss, because students can’t learn the habits of reflection inspired and taught by such books.

One mother who lives in Manhattan sued her daughter’s $19,000-a-year nursery school because it didn’t prepare her for the Ivy League. So now the tot has a ready-made subject for her college essay in 2025: “Fighting Failure From the Age of 4 and Learning About Litigation.”

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