January 31, 2008

Excerpt: "Beet" - A Satiric Look At An Awful College

By Roger Rosenblatt
(Harper Collins, $23.95)

"Don't bother to come home if you still have a job," Livi Porterfield called to her husband as he shoved their two groggy children into the 243,000-miles-and-still-rattling Accord, to drive them to school. He blew her a kiss.

The job she referred to was on the faculty of Beet College, forty miles north of Boston, where eighteen-hundred hand-picked, neurotically competitive undergraduates were joined with one-hundred-and-forty-one hand-picked, neurotically competitive professors to instruct them. Beet was a typical small New England college, fortified with brick and crawling with ivy and self-adoration - the sort of place people call charming when they mean sterile.

There Peace Porterfield, the youngest full professor in the school's history, taught English and American literature - which is ordinarily enough to mark a person for disaster. If that didn't do the trick, he also believed in what he did, being committed to an academic discipline said to have exhausted both its material and its usefulness, and patronized by institutions of higher learning like a doddering tenant no longer able to come up with the rent. And if those things didn't do him in, he believed in the value of a liberal arts education, and in colleges in general, from whose sacred waters, he further believed, civilization flowed. Need one glaze the duck? He believed in civilization...

The Board of Trustees of Beet College was threatening to shut the place down. Since eight o'clock, they had been meeting in the Temple, the imitation Parthenon atop College Hill, under the leadership of Joel Bollovate (known as "the man in the iron belly" to his colleagues, competitors and family), Chairman of the Board and CEO of Bollocorps, the largest developer in five of the six New England states. And why close the College? Because Chairman Bollovate reported that Beet's $265 million endowment had been reduced to nothing, and the school was going broke...

Given every advantage at its birth in 1755, the College profited from the shortcomings of institutions of higher learning that had preceded it. Harvard College was founded in 1636, but in 1718, at the urging of Cotton Mather (whose urgings were rarely ignored), a group of New England conservatives who felt Harvard's standards were slipping decided to found Yale. A few years later another group, who felt Yale's standards were slipping, decided to found Princeton (1746). Not long after that yet another group, detecting more slippage still, created the University of Pennsylvania (1749), then Columbia (1754), until the groups of roving college founders felt standards had slipped so much and so rapidly, they could no longer find them. It was around that time Beet came into being.

That was thanks to a gift of Nathaniel Beet (1660-1732), an American divine and the wealthiest pig farmer in the New England colonies. Beet bequeathed his library of one hundred books (half on religion, half on animal husbandry) and his pigs, which were of much greater dollar value, to establish a "Collegium for Young Men in the Service of Almighty God and Livestock" - thus the College motto, Deus Libri Porci...

The Old Pen presented itself like differentiated functions of the mind - History, Languages, English and American Literature, Philosophy, Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Government, Economics, and so on. Nathaniel's tomb, the size of a tool shed, was squeezed between Philosophy and Economics...

The more recent disciplines had homes in the New Pen, and their names were painted on signs rather than carved into stone, so that they could be replaced at a moment's notice. Ephemeral or not, they brought in the dollars, though apparently not enough to forestall closure. They included Communications Arts; Native American Crafts and Casino Studies; the Sensitivity and Diversity Council; the Fur and Ivory Audiovisual Center; Ethnicity, Gender and Television Studies; Little People of Color; Humor and Meteorology; Bondage Studies; Serial Killers of the Northwest; Wiccan History; and the I Am Woman Center, connected by a walking bridge to the Tarzan Institute, which housed the Robert Bly Man's Manliness Society...

The New Pen was what the College had become in the Bollovate/Huey years - an array of courses and programs specifically designed for profit. In this effort, certain members of the faculty - particularly those who deemed themselves hip to the sensitivities of undergraduates - cooperated, though unwittingly, by mounting a curriculum meant to draw vast numbers of students by bucking up their self-esteem.

"Postcolonial Women's Sports?" Livi erupted when she'd heard of the latest. "Are you shittin' me?"...

The Beet radicals of today, a much smaller group than the radical students of the 1960's, had no Vietnam to march against. They were uninterested in Iraq because they could not be drafted to fight there. They had no minorities to defend, because they didn't want to.

From time to time the radicals would amuse themselves by testing the sympathy limits of the faculty or simply stirring the pot. They'd tell the people at the Robert Bly Men's Manliness Society that Marigold Jefferson of the I Am Woman Center was entertaining its members by screening Deliverance. They compared everyone they disagreed with to Hitler. It was Matha's group which agitated for the latest entry in the course catalog - Nippocano Studies: Where Tokyo Meets Tijuana. They'd meant it as a gag, but once established it was oversubscribed.

Their favorite faculty sympathizer was Tufts Godwin, who headed the Sensitivity and Diversity Council and who was known as Professor Sensodyne behind his back. They would come to him with some concocted grievance against another professor, any other professor, whose tongue slipped causing him to say Miss rather than Ms., or who referred to a woman as beautiful. They would get Professor Sensodyne to insist that the insulting party make a public apology on the lawn of the Old Pen (a suggestion that they set up wooden stocks was rejected for lack of a carpenter) or take a course in sensitivity training. They would show Godwin their appreciation, but with niggardly zeal. Last spring, BWAP [Beet Women Against Pigs] voted him the "Professor Most Sensitive to Women's Issues." But when he showed up to accept the trophy - a plaster of Paris bust of Rosie O'Donnell inscribed Noli me tangere - the women refused to allow him at the meeting because he was a man. Professor Sensodyne said he understood perfectly.

A Beet graduate had complained in a lawsuit against the department of Ethnicity, Gender and Television studies, that upon applying for a position at Microsoft, he presented his honors thesis, "No Transgender Asians on Will and Grace: An Oversight or an Insult?" The human resources official not only laughed out loud but called in her coworkers and bosses, Bill Gates among them, to share the fun. "Okay," said Gates after the laughter had subsided. "What did you really study?"...

Sensitivity Day, always scheduled for early November, was established to memorialize the community triumph in 1998, when especially sensitive College faculty, students and Beet citizens (the number totaled eleven) - led by Professor Sensodyne - won their bitter fight against the Town Council to replace the "Slow Children" street signs with "Please Be Careful As Younger People May Be Entering the Roadways" signs. The group determined that the former signs conveyed a "hurtful insult" to mentally disadvantaged youngsters everywhere, and after a five-year battle of attrition, prevailed...

On Sensitivity Day this year, Manning once again planned to press his motion to add white Protestants from New Canaan, Connecticut to the poorly-thought-of list, which had been tabled last year for being "frivolous." He was delighted to learn it was expected to pass with enthusiasm. And a protest was awaited from the Robert Bly Men's Manliness Society against the event itself, which the Bly group condemned as "sissyish."

The day was known by its celebrants as "S Day," and had its own hand signal, like the victory V. Since forming the S required the use of both hands touching at the thumbs (the left held below the right, so that the letter would be backwards to the ones who made it yet correct for those facing it), one could not give the sign while holding packages, or anything. That sometimes made for physically awkward moments as books, groceries, and occasionally babies had to be laid on the ground before the signal could be given. But since fewer than a dozen faculty members, and no students, remembered either the S sign or how to make it, the inconvenience was deemed minor...

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