I’ve known a few faculty to flaunt their wealth with ostentatious automobiles and sumptuous square-footage. Most, however, hold true to a lifestyle that shares more with Jane Austen’s genteel poverty than Donald Trump’s outlandish ostentation.
Undergraduates are an entirely different matter. The one percent have not only monopolized the admissions process but also set the material expectations for the student body at large. Even their classmates on work study and substantial financial aid flash pricey gadgets as they fill out paperwork for need-based scholarships. I suppose they have imbibed the advice to ‘dress for the job you want not the job you have.’ They carry the cell phones for the jobs they want upon graduation. Despite public discourse about cutting back in the wake of the ‘great recession,’ students remain committed to their stuff.
Institutions comply with this materialism as a means to recruit. Our definition of how to improve higher education too frequently hinges on dorm room connectivity and coffee shops per capita. Somewhere along the line, the furniture of the mind got shoved against the wall as an impediment to social mobility. Socialization to the professional class via swanky dorms and sports clubs (whoops I mean centers) outstripped reading Socratic dialogues in dingy basements while digesting stale cereal.
As we discuss how to bring the next generation of high school kids to college and launch them into careers, the focus remains on mimicking the lifestyles of the lucky few as opposed to building an intellectual framework upon which to hang the rest of their lives. Building projects garner money from wealthy alumni who want to see their names carved in stone lintels and to imagine future generations passing beneath them. Money for tutorials on Montesquieu for mechanical engineers or particle physics for playwrights proves harder to raise.
I understand the need to train students in decorum. Come to my home on a January weekend and you will likely find students eating off my wedding china while they explain grand schemes to illustrious strangers. Grammar of all sorts has fallen by the wayside in our schools. Our kids arrive in college - even the most elite - unsure as to the appropriate use of ‘I’ versus ‘me’ and unaware that you ought not proffer a handshake if the palm is covered in snot. Neither of these skill sets requires a smartphone to learn. Indeed, the gadgetry distracts from lessons at desks and in dining rooms.
I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of her days in a one room schoolhouse and hearing my grandmother’s tales of the same. Sentence diagrams and washed hands featured in both. Neither Wilder nor my grandmother could dream nor would wish to deny their progeny the incredible laboratories and libraries this generation takes as a birthright: common resources held for the common good. I wonder, however, what they would make of ubiquitous SUVs and iPhones.
Even the spoiled Oxonian scion Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited treasured his worn teddy bear above his more glamorous goods. When universities began to educate aristocrats as well as clerics, it seemed a sound idea. Let the rich but dim Sebastians subsidize the broke but bright like Charles Ryder. The stuff of tragicomedy ensued. Read or watch Porterhouse Blue; listen to Kenny Chesney’s “Keg in the Closet.”
In the centuries since the collegiate clergy welcomed the wealthy into their midst, the relationship changed. Middle class parents now mortgage themselves to the hilt in order to gilt their offspring’s protective cages in a close facsimile of one-percent opulence and expect their colleges to follow suit. If the child manages to escape and can’t control his or her underdeveloped wings, the shocked elders sue. The college has failed to maintain its promise to serve In Loco Parentis Luxus.
Evanston, Illinois in the US
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com.