By Jackson Toby
When Isaac Newton went to the University of Cambridge several centuries ago, he studied seven days a week, at least ten hours a day, and actively avoided the revelry that some Cambridge undergraduates engaged in even then. No one expects American undergraduates to work as hard as Isaac Newton or as medieval monks. However, what seems to be happening on many American college campuses is the development of such a powerful "fun" culture that a quarter of the students or more arrive thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be resorted to only when they have nothing better to do.
Unlike students who work for pay during the academic year, where they must submit to employer supervision, students who do not take paid jobs have a great deal of freedom. Although they are supposed to study, they are not compelled to study. Moreover, if they live in campus dormitories or in off-campus housing rather than commuting from home, they do not have parents supervising their comings and goings. American college students were never subjected to the rigorous discipline administered to recruits at the Marine boot camp at Parris Island. Yet before the campus rebellions of the 1960s, most colleges supervised not only classroom behavior, such as attendance, but also student life, including behavior in the dormitories. Administrators and deans, if not professors, believed that they were acting in place of parents. However, student life changed in the 1960s and 1970s. The doctrine of in loco parentis was discarded in deference to student rights. Nowadays, those students who live at college are free of most external constraints. No one will interfere if a student invites a member of the opposite sex--or the same sex--to sleep with him in his dormitory room. If a female student wishes to party on a Thursday evening, get drunk, and sleep through her Friday classes, nothing except her own conscience prevents her from doing so. This freedom enables many students to pursue "fun" relentlessly during the academic year.
Grade inflation usually saves fun-seekers--as well as other academic underperformers--from being forced to leave college. In order to fail, a student has to work hard at defying academic norms. Not attending classes is usually not enough, because many professors stopped taking attendance and those who do rarely use attendance as a basis for grading. In addition to online services that offer for a fee custom-written papers that students can buy and hand in to their professors, most colleges have local-note taking services whereby students can buy notes taken by academically excellent students hired by the services to attend courses and make detailed notes. Thus, students can obtain the material from the lectures without attending them. Not taking any tests, including the final exam in the course, and not handing in required papers, may do it.
The Language of Fun
The pursuit of fun includes uninhibited expression of profane language, especially by student fans at athletic events. Pleas do not seem to alleviate the problem. Neither do appeals to consider the reputation of the college. Some student fans apparently believe that the freedom to express themselves is unlimited at athletic events. Hockey fans are among the worst offenders. At University of Michigan games, fans cheer "See ya, m----- f----r" as opponents enter the penalty box. College basketball has profane fans too. Duke's fans taunted a Maryland player who had been accused of sexually assaulting another student by tossing women's underwear and inflated condoms onto the court.
Creature Comforts that Promote the Fun Lifestyle
For students who come to college to have fun, many colleges have provided features that enable them to do so in style. The University of Houston, for example, offers hot tubs, waterfalls, and pool slides, a five-story climbing wall, and a new $53 million Wellness Center. Other colleges offer equally lavish amenities: Students now get massages, pedicures and manicures at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, while Washington State University boasts of having the largest Jacuzzi on the West Coast. It holds 53 people. Students can play on one of 52 golf courses from around the world on the room-sized golf simulators at Indiana University of Pennsylvania--which use real balls and clubs. And about 100 miles away, Pennsylvania State University's student center has two ballrooms, three art galleries, a movie theater, and a 200-gallon tropical ecosystem with newts and salamanders. There is a separate 550-gallon salt-water aquarium with a live coral reef.
Having Fun Abroad
When American students participate in junior-year-abroad programs in foreign colleges and universities, their fun expectations often clash with the expectations of the colleges they attend. Apparently the casual misbehavior of American students is exported to foreign colleges and universities through "study abroad" programs, which for many students are better labeled "partying abroad." About 160,000 American students participate in these study-abroad programs every academic year. Originally intended to provide opportunities for students with a serious interest in the language or the culture of a foreign country, they lost this academic rationale, especially for English-speaking destinations like England and Australia. The unfortunate result was boorish behavior. Some Americans students in Amsterdam threw trash out of their dorm-room windows on passers-by on the street below. Other American students in Spain got into a knife-and-stick fight with local youths. Still others disappeared from classrooms for weeks to look for more interesting party scenes. "'I had two students in Asia who decided that they would drop beer bottles on passing cars,' said Joseph L. Brockington, associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College in Michigan." Colleges have attempted to tighten controls on students taking study-abroad programs. One method, adopted by Middlebury College in Vermont, is to place all the grades students earn overseas on their transcripts. David Macey, director of off-campus study at Middlebury, believes that this measure "will eliminate the student who goes to Australia and just hangs out on the beach and drinks beer." Partying is an obvious repudiation of studying. Not only is the time spent partying not used for studying, but the party goers are often incapacitated the following day, either sleeping most of the day or recovering from hangovers. American students who study abroad for their entire four years of higher education--now a fairly common practice--tend to be more serious students, but with a drinking age of 18 in the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example, they spend considerable time in pubs while enrolled in English, Irish, and Scottish universities.
Extracurricular activities, although worthy in themselves, sometimes absorb so much time and energy as to crowd out the educational activities for which students supposedly are enrolled. Dan Ronnen, the former editor-in-chief of the Rutgers University student newspaper, The Daily Targum, decided on the eve of graduation that he had learned a lot during his college years but that his out-of-class learning experiences provided more of his education than formal classes. He argued that most Rutgers students had subordinated academic opportunities to volunteering for worthy community service activities or other extracurricular activities. Ronnen wrote in The Daily Targum as follows:
I would venture to guess the percentage of students who do go to class, who do take notes and who do keep up in their reading are a small minority... [S]tudents have used their extracurricular activities, not just to round out their education, but they have made it their primary teacher. That's not the reason we're paying several thousand dollars a year to be at this university.
The next question ought to be how it is possible for students to spend most of their four years working on the student newspaper, playing basketball, or just socializing with friends and still graduate. The answer seems to be: there are enough undemanding courses in all colleges but especially in the unselective ones so that undergraduate students don't have to study diligently if they don't wish to. Some wish to because they plan to continue into law school, medical school, or graduate school. For the rest, no strong incentive pressures them to study diligently rather than to pursue nonacademic activities that attract them more. Should the choice Mr. Ronnen made to neglect classes in order to devote a great deal of effort to the college newspaper or the heavy commitments by other students to theater productions, sports teams, music groups, and other extracurricular activities be condemned? Certainly, such activities are educational in a broad sense, although they may not provide the intellectual tools most students will need in the careers they pursue after college. The word, "extracurricular," suggests that these activities should be undertaken in addition to curricular pursuits, not instead of them. True, some of these extracurricular activities facilitate careers in journalism, radio and television, the theater, and professional sports, but they are not providing the intellectual development that parents and student loan programs intended to support.
Can Students Major in Fun?
Although no college explicitly offer a major in fun, students may informally major in fun at college by taking an untaxing class schedule or by changing majors in order to prolong a leisurely stay at college. Johnny Lechner, a 29-year-old student, was in his twelfth year at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus by November, 2005, when the New York Times wrote an article about him. He accumulated $30,000 worth of student loans during his college career. Mr. Lechner seems to have lingered in college to pursue adolescent fun after most of his peers graduated and launched adult careers. He meandered through four majors--education, communications, theater, and women's studies, accumulating 242 credits, more than twice the 120 required for graduation--without concentrating in any field sufficiently to fulfill its graduation requirements. Like Johnny Lechner, other students linger on the campus because they regard college as a time for fun or because the undemanding lifestyle suits them.
I do not know whether Mr. Lechner ultimately settled on a major, graduated, obtained a good job, and settled down to an adult life style by 2012; he must now be 36. But a college student today probably could not duplicate such a life trajectory because the cost of college has increased so much that only a very wealthy student could spend so long doing so little and because contemporary students have become aware that mere graduation does not guarantee a job. They have to know something. Despite the willingness of the Department of Education to make student loans without inquiring what the student is attending college to accomplish intellectually, economic constraints may undermine the fun major.
Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article draws upon the fourth chapter of his book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, The paperback edition was published in March