Monday, September 26, 2005

Killing creativity in the Ivory Tower

As everyone knows, those four years of college can be a time that resembles very little of what real life dishes out. What’s worse, the modern college experience appears to be less about learning to think critically about the world and more about being a good little worker bee. Even at the more prestigious schools, it appears that the dumbing-down of the curriculum and maintaining a veneer of political correctness is more important than allowing students an opportunity to reach their greatest potential. Perpetuating consumer chic is more important than peeling back the façade that undergirds much of American culture. As a result, each graduating class marches out into the world, less and less likely to be leaders and people that might make a difference and god forbid—change their world! The production of pod people seems to be the end result of much of what passes for higher education today.

Take for instance the case of my son, now in his senior year, at Wheaton College. Apparently, he’s decided he’d like to do some writing of his own. He’s obviously been quite interested in the entire process of how my book, When Towns Had Teams has come to be. Over the summer, he expressed quite an interest in the nuts and bolts of writing.

When he went back to school and informed my wife and I that he was going to write for the [wire], the official campus media organ for Wheaton College, I won’t deny that I was pleased. Both of us are happy that he is trying to get as much out of his college experience as possible.

As a writer, I think Mark has a lot of potential. He has a wry wit and has written some very interesting and at times, provocative material. He’s not one to shy away from issues, but he also is able to use humor to cut to the core of the matter.

I must say that Wheaton has been much less politically charged and quite a bit more conservative than I thought it would be. The administration appears to want to be as non-controversial as possible—basically, they are good liberals—saying all the right things, maintaining the most politically correct of facades—all the while, making sure that their students don’t upset any of the locals or other arbiters, or those rich benefactors bankrolling their endeavors that play at education. Obviously, keeping those $40,000 checks coming in each year is what matters most, at Wheaton, and most other college campuses.

Mark’s first feature for the [wire] (don’t you just love how “cute” these young journalists think they are with their quirky little name?) was on nightlife in Norton. Titled “A wild Tuesday night”, it was a tongue-in-cheek poking of fun at Norton’s lack of anything that remotely resembles nightlife. This college town tucked into the nondescript corridor of similar towns near Foxborough (home of the New England Patriots) and about 45 minutes southwest of Boston, is a sleepy village of some 18,000 residents. The college (1,600 students), at one time, a women’s seminary, obviously had hoped to cultivate the quiet, pristine environment so important to academia some 150 years ago.

Basically, the entire feature was just Mark out and about town on a Tuesday night, poking fun at Norton’s propensity to “roll up the sidewalks” with the setting of the sun.

Take for example, the following;

“To my surprise, I found something was actually going on. A men’s dart league. I had stumbled across the world’s largest steel tipped dart league (Minute Man Dart League). Jay, one of the players competing that night, had traveled all the way from Rockland, MA to join his team from East Bridgewater in their match against Norton’s dart slingers. Now Bridgewater may not seem that far away to travel, but any distance beyond a two minute walk to the bar seems like a long journey when you’re talking about sticking a few darts in the wall. For a player like Jay to travel from Rockland is like if Ichiro Suzuki still lived in Japan and made the trip across the Pacific Ocean to play baseball. Then again, darts may be one of the few pure sports left in America. Even though Jay’s buddy, Jim, accused him of being “juiced up,” I find it hard to believe you can gain an edge in darts by using performance enhancing drugs.”

Obviously my son is having some fun at the expense of the local dart league, but the article is off to a good start and had me LMAO when I read it—so far, so good.

What caused problems for my budding journalist of a son, is when he departed from poking fun at the working class and decided to move on to the sacred cow of public education, the bright yellow school bus.

The feature continues;

“At 10:22 pm, I found myself sitting inside a bus in the Norton High School parking lot. My goal had been to go into as many busses as I could and start them up, but none of the busses had keys left in the ignitions so that plan was foiled. So, if you are ever really bored, you could always walk down to Norton High School and smoke some weed in a bus or better yet you could bring a person of the opposite sex and have a crazy one night stand aboard a big yellow.”

I would think that anyone reading this article could see the sport and sarcasm dripping from each sentence. Mark, the straight-edge fan of hard-core music, with its very strong anti-drug message, was poking some fun at college life and the propensity of many students who spend much of their four years in a drug and alcohol-fueled haze. Rather than maximizing their four years and taking advantage of the academic opportunities, unencumbered by the cares of life, too many spend their time trying to find the best party, or local bar with the best happy hours.

Instead of this innocuous piece in a rather lame college newspaper, going unnoticed, it got Mark an appointment with both the assistant dean of college life (or something to that effect) and the head of campus safety. Apparently, they took issue with Mark’s boarding of the unlocked school busses (which btw, he had snapped a self portrait of himself at the wheel, with his digital camera—the evidence did him in) and read him the riot act. And of course, rather than the [wire], the high-flying bastion of college journalistic integrity going to bat for one of their writers, they basically caved and left Mark to twist in the wind.

To my son’s credit, he drove down to Norton High School and met with the principal and basically ironed out any issues or hard feelings—he did this on his own, prior to his meeting with the white-bread purveyors of campus morality—i.e., the academic thought and behavior police.

This isn’t the first issue with Mark having to meet with some two-bit censor of creative license. There was another earlier issue involving free expression that got my son in trouble, last year.

Lest you think I’m one of those parents who think that their child can do no wrong, then you obviously don’t know me. Mark and I have banged heads on a number of issues, but when he’s doing what a college student should be given the freedom to do—figure out who he is and what exactly he wants to do—and utilizing a newspaper that is fairly bereft of content of any substance—then I say, “more power to you.”

When we had our Sunday afternoon phone chat, as is our habit, I was a bit perturbed to find out about Mark’s being given the third degree by these pencil-pushers and humorless academic bureaucrats. It’s always my inclination to drive three hours and show up at the Dean’s office on Monday morning and give them a good going-over about their academic house of cards. But, of course, my son’s cooler disposition and level head talks me down off the ledge of my feigned indignance and I realize that he’s learning to navigate his way around the landmines of censorship, status quo and poseurs that he’ll come up against in life, just like I have. And he’ll probably do a hell of a lot better job at it too.

If you’ve read this far, I want to close by saying this. My son has gotten a lot out of his four years at Wheaton. He’s developed into a key member of a very good baseball team, he’s made the Dean’s List, and I’ve seen him mature tremendously over that time. He’s become a fine young man. However, I think it has more to do with his character and integrity, than with any of the so-called prestige that overwrought bastions of academia can impart. Possibly, the contacts Mark’s made might help him, but I think he’s someone that is going to make his own way, regardless.

While Wheaton has been generous in financial aid to make sure that a hard-working (and very deserving) member of the working class can attend this WASPY den of higher learning, I sometimes wish that my son had been given the opportunity to sample a bit more diversity and a more urban experience over the past four years. However, I’m confident that he’s the type of person that will probably seek that out after he’s left the ivy-covered cocoon and found his way in the world.


Anonymous said...

I know where you are coming from and I feel, like you, that the whole incidence was blown out of proportion. But let me play devil's advocate, now this is where my families law enforcement background comes into play, Mark did, according to the law, break and enter onto private property. Now I know and you know that he did no damage but, he really should not have taken that picture, although it is rather funny. I guess it just shows us that Mark will never make it as a professional burgular. As you said Mark will go on to far and better things and will use this experience as just one of the steps to get him there. He is a fine young man and it has been a pleasure to have known him these last three years.

weasel said...

Jum, Mark sounds like an outstanding young man based on this incident alone, never mind the sporting prowess we talked about the other night. Let him continue on down the road of Yossarian and continue to say "no" and ask "why" at every opportunity.

If he hasn't read it yet, I'd recommend "Letters to a Young Contrarian" by Christopher Hitchens this year for Christmas.

timothyjlambert said...

Wouldn't it be a men's darts league? You throw a dart at a dartboard, but play a game of darts. Noun plural always screws with me.

Frickin' pants, billiards and darts...

Jim said...

I didn't get into the the [wire]'s very poor copyediting--I merely reprinted verbatim as the article ran.

Hitchens is a good recommendation.

Interestingly, it's Mark's attempts at using humor to illustrate absurdity that usually get him in trouble with the authorities. I wonder what the implication is in that regard?

weasel said...

The Weasel family motto- "F*ck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke"- is rooted in a long held truth dating back to the dawn of time. Authority figures can play jokes ("don't eat Yeah, thats it- the apple.") but can't take them ("Noah, want you to gather up pairs of animals; I just saw Don Rickles' act.")

Why people idolize rock stars in beyond me. People should idolize comedians. Rock stars used to get arrested for drugs and lewdness; comedians got arrested for free speech issues. Who is the bigger hero there?

As for the vaguely ironic use of an asterix in above motto given the sentiment of the post, I don't know your policy on cussin'.

ChefDunn said...

As you know Jim, using humor to point out absurdities is one of my favorite pastimes. The implications there are easily exemplified by how the "authorities" at my last job reacted to my off-beat sense of humor... Well, you know how that turned out. The funny thing is, depending on the type of place I find myself employed, my sense of humor is either seen as a strength or a weakness.