"Party U." and the impoverished undergraduate vision of adulthood

This American Life recently had an episode recorded in State College, Pennsylvania–the home of Penn State University–on drinking, sports, and undergraduate culture (h/t to reader and commenter Fratguy.)  It’s worth a listen, especially for those of you (like me) who teach at big aggies or state unis and sometimes wonder what percentage of our students’ brains are occupied by academics.  Warning:  don’t listen if you’re looking for good news!

I was particularly interested in the opening story, in which Ira Glass stays up late to see what happens in perfectly nice neighborhoods in college towns because of pathological student drinking.  In my former Ohio small town, which hosted a prestigious public university, I lived in a neighborhood in which we might find beer bottles smashed into the sidewalk, piles of puke in our gardens, and/or have our front porch furniture stolen.  I really identified with Glass’s producer, who was running around trying to get the drunken students’ attention, and reminding them that “people live here!”  Of course, she was ignored (and even threatened).

But if sober undergraduate students are given to solipsism and narcissism, drunken undergraduates behave as if they’re truly the only people in the world, and as if their “right” to public inebriation, vandalism, and violence supersedes all other rights.  Unless you’ve tried living in a college town as an adult, it’s sometimes difficult to grasp the self-centeredness of these students, drunk or sober.  Once on a morning after, I assisted a young woman whose car window had been bashed in–not because anyone was trying to steal her car.  It was just random, drunken vandalism.  I felt sorry for her trouble, gave her our home phone so that she could call her parents, and offered her a broom and dustpan so that she could get the glass out of her car.  Instead of sweeping up the glass, she just brushed it out of her car and onto the street and tree lawn so that I had to pick it up later, piece by piece.  Most of our neighbors had stories of drunken students who tried to enter their homes–or who successfully entered their homes, and fell asleep on their couches or beds, sometimes after having peed in a corner of a room that didn’t have a toilet in it.  (I like Glass’s description of this as an everyday crime that’s difficult to define or explain to people who don’t live in college towns.)  When adult residents complain, the typical student retort is, “well, you knew what kind of a neighborhood this was when you bought your house.” 

One aspect of undergraduate drinking I’ve heard from college students, and which is noted in this This American Life recording, is the belief that college is the last party they’ll ever attend, so if they don’t make maximum use of their college years to engage in drunken vandalism and a$$hattery, they’ll have squandered something precious.  I understand the feeling that college is a special time in life–it most certainly is.  What’s more disturbing is the impoverished vision of adulthood this belief implies.  Instead of seeing graduation from college as an exciting beginning of their lives as free adults who can explore the world, establish themselves in their chosen fields, and/or engage in creative projects, it’s just the first blow of the work whistle they’ll be waking up to for the rest of their lives.  For example:  it’s striking to me how young most of these students marry and have children.  But instead of seeing these events as joyous milestones in their own lives, they apparently see them as millstones of adult obligation they must undertake, regardless of their own wants, talents, or needs.

Why do they have such a dreary view of adulthood?  (Is it just an excuse to engage in drunken mayhem in college?)  All I wanted when I was a child and a teenager was to be older, to have more freedom and to have more responsibility for myself.  I looked forward to adulthood all my life, so I really don’t understand what’s not appealing about it.  I wish there was some way of getting our students to think about college as an introduction to how to have a full and rich adult life.  But all of that alcohol is probably permanently altering their brain chemistry and perhaps dooming them to the narrow, dull lives they imagine we adults all share.

I’m betting that many of you have stories to tell about living in college towns.  Do you think your students share this grim, joyless view of adulthood?  (By the way, I don’t live in a college town any more–although it means I have a commute, I’m really OK with that.)

0 thoughts on “"Party U." and the impoverished undergraduate vision of adulthood

  1. Paul – I think you raise an interesting point about the particularity of American laws and attitudes concerning alcohol. It makes logical sense to me that because the legal drinking age in the US is so much higher than in other countries, and because our culture is not really one in which alcohol plays a major role (though not primarily about intoxication), we seem to have a greater problem with binge-drinking among college(-aged) students than do countries with lower drinking ages, and/or a culture that includes alcohol as a feature — France, for example.

    But curiously, experience this year has completely contradicted this. I’m a doctoral student in the States and was offered a free room at the dormitories in what is considered the one of the finest, most elite universities in the country, ‘best and the brightest’, etc. Granted, it’s been years since I last lived in an undergraduate dorm, but even after four months, I am shocked at the amount of binge-drinking and ensuing rowdiness that I see (and hear…and smell…) here at all hours. Students screaming on the streets and in the dorms all night long, fire alarms pulled at 5 a.m., theft, vandalism, vomit in the hallways.

    Obviously, there are many differences between the American and French university systems, but the big one that seems relevant to this discussion is that these students are NOT paying (not just the big bucks, but anything!) to attend this school. They’re actually BEING paid by the government to go here. So what is going on here?


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  3. Very interesting post and thread. I went to UC Berkeley and couldn’t have afforded to be hung over, it was too academically demanding.

    Also, I had been taught that this was my last chance for an intellectual experience before entering a dreary marriage, so I was taking special advantage of the chance to enjoy what college truly had to offer.

    This idea that adulthood isn’t fun is an old one. I have always heard, and I keep hearing versions of it.


  4. Hey just checking in…

    Next time there is a smashed car window do NOT sweep glass, touch glass, or anything else…

    You need to send the person to a gas station with an auto vacuum.

    Some cops taught me that once and it really works.


  5. Thanks for the tip! I now live in a college town where the little darlings go home to Denver on the weekends, so it’s much quieter, but every couple of years a few of the kids from the high school 2 blocks away think it’s funny to smash windows in my neighborhood.


  6. Pingback: And now, from the department of the bloody obvious. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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