According to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, American colleges are in crisis. This Sunday, both papers prominently featured pieces decrying the modernization of higher ed. At the NYT, there's hand-wringing over hook-up culture; the WSJ is worried about the death of the humanities. It's all very bleak—and familiar.
Kate Taylor takes a peek into the world of hook-ups at the University of Pennsylvania in "Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too." The lengthy piece can be distilled to this—some women at Penn are choosing to "hook up" instead of seriously date, so that they have more time to focus on school and work. Taylor often refers to "A.," a "slim, pretty junior" at Penn, who rather bluntly discusses sex and her own ambitions:
“We are very aware of cost-benefit issues and trading up and trading down, so no one wants to be too tied to someone that, you know, may not be the person they want to be with in a couple of months,” she said.
Instead, she enjoyed casual sex on her terms—often late at night, after a few drinks, and never at her place, she noted, because then she would have to wash the sheets.
Taylor then pivots with quotes from the "Princeton Mom," Susan Patton, who's urged collegiate women to find husbands while they still can.
The underlying tone of the piece is that no-strings-attached sex could prove to be bad, or at least unsatisfying, for girls. The piece gets more serious (and differentiates itself from other similar trend stories) when Taylor points out a possible link between hook-up culture and incidences of sexual assault.
Then we have Lee Siegel at WSJ, bemoaning the decline of our nation's institutions in "Who Ruined the Humanities?" Apparently, colleges have been bastardizing the study of literature for years:
The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist's chair. In their numbing hands, the term "humanities" became code for "and you don't even have to show up to get an A."
Siegel argues that the marked decrease in English majors since the 1970s could actually be a good thing, as literature is more meaningful when discovered outside the classroom. "Literature requires only that you be human," he writes. "It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught." He wants today's youth to come to appreciate literature outside of the classroom, but of course, they probably aren't all that interested in reading Homer in this "digital age." Still, he remains hopeful:
Young people will read them when they are touched by inexpressible yearnings the way they will eat when they are hungry.
I mean, college kids definitely eat. He could be on to something there.
University trend pieces like these are just a new way for writers to look back fondly upon a "simpler time". Just six months ago, the NYT published a piece about young women and the death of courtship. You can throw "hook-up culture" into Google, and about fifteen different retreads of the same "College Kids Have Sex" article come up. Same with the death of English majors. The decline of American colleges gets "revealed" about three times a year.
Currently, Taylor's piece is the #1 "most emailed" article on the NYT website, and Siegel's is the #1 "most popular" on the WSJ site. They'll keep writing them if we keep reading them.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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