Earnest Goes to College
[Playboy, October 2005]
Internships. Triple majors. Planning for the future. Fear of failure. For the undergrads at uptight U, college isn't what it used to be.
By RICHARD MORGAN
BONUS: Playboy readers respond
DOUBLE BONUS: In western Maryland, I'm a demigod
TRIPLE BONUS: Download the PDF
QUADRUPLE BONUS: My protégé, Christopher Hitchens
We’re (not) going streaking! It's midnight on April 18, 2005, and a gaggle of students wearing skimpy outfits and body paint runs whooping through the quads of the University of Michigan. The event is called the Painted Mile, a new tradition at U of M. More accurately it's a new twist on an old tradition. It used to be that kids by the hundreds would strip down to their cross-trainers and sprint as one majestic, fleshy mass. It was called the Naked Mile.
This is the way the fun dies. In 2001 Rolling Stone picked the Naked Mile as one of "31 Fun Reasons to Go to College" and acclaimed it as a tradition that "will probably never die." The following year, after a flood of e-mails from administrators warning that streakers would be branded as sex offenders for life, fewer than 20 kids showed--most wearing underwear. Three were arrested for indecent exposure. The2003 edition of the Naked Mile was a car with a handful of nude students driving along the streak's path. In 2004 U of M alumni held a surprise run (on a different day) at which 13 participants were actually naked.
As college antics go, nothing seems more emblematic than streaking. It's entirely pointless, requires no brainpower or equipment and in its way reinforces the pleasant notion that this is your last chance to let it all hang out. I graduated from North Carolina State in 2001, and streaking was just something you did. I streaked my campus. I traveled 20 minutes away to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and streaked its campus. The kids who didn't streak refrained out of modesty or because they thought it was pointless or, I suppose, because they thought it was immoral. The decision was theirs to make based on personal preference, not under threat of litigation. The idea that you could get into any kind of real trouble for good old collegiate nudity would have been deemed ludicrous.
So why are paint-splattered kids in their shorts and sports bras running in Ann Arbor? Why do they bother? It's one thing to give up on a tradition when draconian punishments are being doled out; it's something vastly different to embrace the watered-down substitute activity as if it were just as good. Vastly different, that is, for people of a certain age. For today's college kids the difference is marginal. A technicality. Nothing worth getting in trouble over. Across the country schools are replacing the fine fun they used to serve with the equivalent of Folgers Crystals, and students are drinking it up all the same. This is Fun 2.0--cleaner, more stable and without the bugs that plagued earlier versions. Better in many ways but suspiciously light on the fun part.
Perhaps most surprising is that students don't seem to mind. They just go on their way, keeping their eyes on the ball, their nose to the grindstone and their shoulder to the wheel. Surely it would be simplistic to dismiss this generation as one that doesn't know how to have a good time, and this issue offers abundant evidence elsewhere that at least 101 college girls out there would enliven almost any get-together. But this is a generation of people who have spent their predictably eclectic lives being mini-vanned from recitals to soccer practice to band camp to Boy Scouts and are now embracing their role as eerily cheery resume-building leaders of tomorrow. They've lived lives of structured achievement, and they know the underside--expanding anxiety, stress and humorless careerism.
JUST A FEW GOOD APPLES
The fundamental problem with saying anything about college social life is that everybody in the system is moving. Everyone starts out awkward; everyone gets cooler. Each senior class winces at the dorkiness of each freshman class and looks back on its own first days on campus through rose-colored Wayfarers. As much as the veterans like to bag on the young 'uns, their assessments are hardly comprehensive. Really, how different are today's freshmen from the babyfaces of 20 years ago?
Very different, according to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which has conducted the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey since 1967. The data compiled over that period are the single most valuable resource on the attitudes and habits of college students. Administrators use the survey results to tailor their campus policies; Congress uses them to shape national educational policy. This past January's survey contains data on 300,000 incoming freshmen at more than 400 colleges.
In a nutshell, colleges aren't getting the raw material they once were. Only 45.5 percent of freshmen reported drinking beer sometime in the year leading up to college, after last year's record low of 44.8 percent and a high of 73.7 percent in 1982. Just 51.9 percent consumed liquor or wine, after last year's record low of 50.7 percent and the all-time high of 67.8 percent in 1987. Perhaps the most shocking statistic falls under the rubric of general partying. Asked how many hours a week they'd spent partying, 39 percent of students said they'd partied less than one hour a week. Actually, only 15.2 percent said less than one hour--23.8 percent said they hadn't partied at all.
It's a tragic image: a newly arrived freshman, number-two pencil in hand, choosing between a box that says "less than one hour" and one that says "not at all." It's the difference between not getting out much and locking oneself in the basement. Of 2005's freshmen, 23.8 percent were sure of it: They had not partied at all during their senior year in high school, not even accidentally.
They're sitting ducks.
Nobody has to tell college administrators that the late 1980s and early 1990s were the heyday of college partying; they lived through those years, some as university Employees, others as students. They were aware of the rickety legal foundation on which campus social policies rested, and they saw it crumble.
Few kids recognize the names of Scott Krueger and Elizabeth Shin, but every college administrator does. After Krueger died of alcohol poisoning in the Phi Gamma Delta (also known as Fiji) frat house in 1997, MIT shelled out $6 million to his parents--the largest wrongful-death sum a college has ever paid. After going through psychological counseling at MIT for a year, Shin committed suicide by setting herself on fire in 2000; her parents are pushing for a wrongful-death suit as well. Krueger and Shin together have made colleges ultraparanoid about lawsuits related to two major facts of student life: alcohol and stress. Schools have quietly ramped up counseling services like you wouldn't believe, and they have firmly expunged sowing wild oats from the curriculum.
It's a 180-degree turn from the way campus behavior was once viewed. The school grounds used to constitute a kind of safe zone. Underage drinking, fighting, general mischief--it all received, if anything, a slap on the wrist. Rules from the outside world were suspended, largely for the outside world's benefit. Colleges would rather have strange things going down within their walls than students causing trouble all over town. (If you must pass out on the grass, please do so on the quad, not some poor citizen's lawn.) Now colleges see pranks and parties as lawsuits waiting to happen. Don't get it out of your system; just get out.
This gradual purge of campus revelry had already begun when I was in school. Parties were shooed off campus to bars, thus absolving the school of responsibility for underage drinking. Rules limiting how many people we were allowed to have in our rooms, among other things, made dorm life uncomfortable and drove many of us off campus--not just across the street but across town--to better avoid harassment from campus police. During nay sophomore year the university tried to co-opt tailgating at football games, sponsoring bands and providing food while strengthening open-container rules and policing other rambunctious behavior. Eventually the school forbade a handful of friends to hang out in the parking lot with their truck bed open--even if they weren't drinking.
NC State was hardly alone. After a crackdown at the University of Washington in Seattle, an aggressively enforced noise ordinance essentially killed student house parties. Students make do with bars and clubs. "But no matter how great a bar or club is, you don't own it. It won't ever be as fun as a house party," says Alicia Lazzarini, who graduated from UW this summer with three jobs, two majors and a half minor. She barely remembers the wild street parties on Greek row from her sophomore year.
Then there's Ian Latta, a poetry major who also graduated from college last summer. He says one of his hopes was to have an undergraduate experience "imbued with activity and a sense of place." That's why he agreed to become the head of a student-owned and -run college dorm alternative, Le Chateau, which ran afoul of its neighbors. They complained about a rumored meth lab in the basement and a wild barbecue that ended with a pig carcass being dragged down the street. (Latta disputes both claims.) They also complained that people had congregated in the backyard, that more than three people swam in the pool simultaneously and that residents in the house washed their dishes too loudly. Somebody said he just generally felt uncomfortable walking his dog past Le Chateau. Lawsuits were filed, including one from a professor's husband citing mental anguish and property devaluation.
"It was all walking on eggshells," Latta says. "We couldn't plan anything without fear of our neighbors fucking it up or the university getting on edge. It got to the point where we budgeted for the fines we might receive because of neighbors calling the police."
Latta, by the way, didn't live in some generic college town; he lived in Berkeley, the college town. His university is among the best in the country, and his neighbors reside in the bluest of the blue states. It's a world of liberals, hippies and, apparently, lawsuit-happy grouches.
Latta tried to avoid trouble. He began cracking the whip: no more music after 10 p.m., no more beers in the vending machine and definitely no Jacuzzi added to the pool. It didn't matter. "Once it got to be a big PR liability for the students and the university, the co-op association ended it," says Latta. Le Chateau was handed over to grinding grad students who were much more likely to wash their dishes quietly.
THANK YOU, SIR. MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?
So what's the problem here--not enough keggers on the quad? When students, or their parents, shell out $30,000 a year for tuition, what's wrong with discouraging the worship of the great porcelain god?
Well, the assault on partying has a downside. When adults resort to lawsuits and other scare tactics to bully students like Latta, the effect is soul crushing. Nobody wants to be expelled, fined, jailed or even ridiculed. Yet the zero-tolerance policies some schools have implemented specify harsh penalties that hardly ever fit the crime. In Ohio, for example, riotous celebrations following Ohio State football victories prompted the governor to order mandatory expulsions and two-year financial-aid bans--without exception--for "misconduct" wherever "four or more others are acting." Suddenly kids who once consented to have their knapsack inspected are bending over for the full cavity search--and paying for it. In October 2004 Arias Trieu, a University of Arizona senior, was booted out of his dorm for possession of a weapon: chopsticks. The University of Kansas has forbidden the water fights that were once part of something called Loopy Day.
Unsurprisingly the crackdowns are often coordinated with local authorities. At my school in 2000 the city of Raleigh went after a long-standing blowout known as Brent Road with both a zero-tolerance policy and a "nuisance party" ordinance. As described in the newsletter of the NC State Parents & Families Association, "Those arrested are transported to a processing center for fingerprinting and a mug shot. A magistrate will determine the conditions of release." By my senior year Brent Road was almost nothing. I remember driving up, seeing a lot of police and no one in the street and simply driving off. Wasn't happening.
"Few people wake up, look in the mirror and say, 'I'm a coward. I'm going to buckle under,'" says Alan Charles Kors, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is also president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a First Amendment advocacy group. "The process is more subtle, just a blending into the environment. Students have rolled over and played dead. It takes a rare, principled student to litigate for his or her rights, to stand alone and maybe be ridiculed or shunned, especially when paying a fortune in tuition." Kors regrets the passivity he sees on campus. "When I was in college, no way were the gay activists and college Republicans not going to offend each other," he says, "but there was energy and excitement. College is supposed to be a place to explore. That doesn't happen at today's universities."
Kors, whose organization has launched a war on speech codes, finds it ironic that those who promulgate zero-tolerance policies are members of a generation that walked around high on pot and LSD. "American students today are victims of a generational swindle," says Kors. "The same folks who fought for free speech are fighting for speech codes now. The same folks who experimented their asses off with drugs, sex and politics--and expected to be treated like adults--are infantilizing students. When I speak to students, the thing they talk about most is the indignity of being a student on campus today."
Swindlers or not, these people--the same ones who once argued against trusting anyone over 30--are now in charge. They have the authority. And why not trust authority? It has done some pretty swell things for today's students. For one, authority has provided them with the most privileged upbringing in human history. It has also protected them, insulating them as much as possible from nightmares (however unlikely) like the Columbine shootings, which happened when the class of 2005 was in high school, and the 9/11 attacks, which happened when they began college. These kids have been walking through metal detectors and opening backpacks for omnipresent security guards since middle school; such practices perhaps explain why a generational profile of current college students, published by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, reports that students today "are disconcertingly comfortable with authority. Half say they trust government to do what's right all or most of the time--twice the share of older people answering the same question in the same poll."
Authority tells these grade-inflated, buckled-up, sports-camped collegians that they have been given every advantage necessary to lead a wonderful life. All they have to do is manage not to fuck up, which means today's students are full of fear--the fear of failure.
Meet Jed Ferguson, a University of Oklahoma senior. He leads a Bible study group with his fellow frat brothers in Lambda Chi Alpha, umpires 20 hours a week at Little League games, worked at a nonprofit that sends children's books to third world countries, worries about his father's health and is staying a virgin until marriage. This finance major (with a minor in entrepreneurship and venture management) has about 400 friends at the college networking site thefacebook.com, no tattoos or piercings, and a 3.72 GPA. In other words he's all-American normal, verging on saintly. Humble, polite, driven, well-rounded, you name it--a son to make any parent proud.
But for all his accomplishments and admirable attributes, Ferguson doesn't sound happy. "There are consequences for your actions whether you realize it or not," he says. "You can mess up really big. Bad things do happen. Nobody gets off scot-free." His biggest concern is having money to help his parents pay for college; being successful comes in a close second. Nonpractical majors like English or art history are, he says, "admirable for furthering personal growth and expansion, but that's for people with superstrong gifts in a specific talent or art. I don't have that." So he talks about his participation in the J.C. Penney Leadership Center, an elite campus business program that shows "how to apply what you're learning" by "sharpening your skills." He owns three suits and 15 ties.
But let's be clear on this: Ferguson is a different kind of student, and he knows it. He thinks he's a better breed. "You see people who went to college in the 1970s or 1980s, and they're clearly washed up, cracked out, burned-out," he says. Then he uses the worst slur in college vocabulary: "Just failures, you know?"
I didn't know anyone in college quite like Ferguson. Some of my classmates were driven, some religious and some stressed-out. But I can't remember anyone who was all three at all times.
DON'T KNOW MUCH ...
Avoiding failure often translates most immediately into getting good grades. Pushing herself to graduate summa cum laude from Yale in 1998 appealed to author Alexandra Robbins, but she admits she mastered studentship rather than studying--or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, she let her schooling get in the way of her education. "I knew how to play school," she says. "I was good at the game, and I worked my ass off. But I freaked out when I got to the real world and realized how much I had been misleading myself when I was in the college bubble. It's fine to have goals, but understand that nobody--nobody--cares about your GPA after you graduate."
In fact, grades are often meaningless well before the cap-and-gown ceremony. Rather than measuring aptitude or at least interest in a field, grades serve more to reassure students that they're still special. At Ivy League schools, packed with kids who have aced every book report and math quiz they've ever turned in, egos are particularly brittle. How special is a B-minus student? Not very. But when a grade-inflation scandal erupted in 2002 after The Boston Globe noticed that 91 percent of Harvard kids were graduating with A-minuses or better, many at the school defended the grading policy. Students feel entitled to those inflated grades, and administrators are reluctant to deflate them. No kid--and no kid's tuition-paying parent--wants to go to sleep with an A-minus and wake up with a B-flat.
It's a logical progression. When I was in college, professors were unhappy that their grading statistics were posted like batting averages. You could find out the percentage of A's an instructor awarded, as well as how often (if ever) he or she issued Fs. It encouraged shopping for easy graders over taking interesting or useful classes. As the Internet permeated campus, sharing old exams and papers became rampant among the tech-savvy. This wasn't old-school cheating; these weren't slackers trying to stay in school without studying. These were good students trying to look even better.
Anything to avoid being average, which is just another way of saying failure. That's college today.
Ask Dustin Harber, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin this summer with four majors--Asian studies, computer science, Japanese and math--while having worked two part-time jobs and taken trips to Japan. He says his drive is to "look well-rounded for grad school," but he's also a little self-conscious. "I don't go bragging. Sometimes I just say I have two majors. I don't want to get into it and have people think I'm a library psycho. Or I immediately qualify the description. I'm an average college student; I just happen to have taken four majors."
He's not kidding. And he's not uncommon. "This whole utilitarian approach to education is clear," says Linda Sax, a director at the UCLA institute. "It's clearly a part of students' lives, their attitudes. Everything is immediate and has a purpose. There just isn't time for reflections and conversations that don't have specific goals."
Gaudy as a quadruple major seems, it's not untoppable. In 2002 both Northeastern and West Virginia University graduated their first-ever quintuple-major students.
A WALK ON THE MILD SIDE
If any place could be immune to this lamefest, it should be New York City, where people don't take shit--especially at NYU in Greenwich Village. For a century the neighborhood has been known for sexual experimentation, drug use and dissent the way Wall Street is known for money. Broadly speaking, one notices that everybody there is hip and attractive. The bars, packed with hipsters in their mid-20s, stay open until four A.M. Afterparties in shoebox apartments and on rooftops rage till dawn or noon.
Yet even in the Village, it seems, college can suck. "People don't know what it's like," says Mike Diaz, who graduated this past summer. "They don't know what college has become. I see a movie like Old School and I feel I'm missing out." Diaz admits NYU isn't a total morgue, but he's troubled by the absence of youthful indiscretion. "It's like students are dressing up as adults. I mean, they are adults, but it's like they're dressing up as 30. College life now is the way I feel middle-aged life is supposed to be. And it shouldn't be like that. It should be this big bang that creates the rest of your life. It should be crazy."
NYU's renowned music program was a draw for Diaz, who is skilled at both piano and saxophone. He picked up a philosophy minor and joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. All good signs, it would seem: The kid likes expressing himself, stops to smell the roses and knows how to have a good time. But it's not that simple. The music major he planned as a freshman morphed into a music-business major by graduation. He doesn't actually play instruments much anymore; he had been nervous about playing music in his room because RAs kept coming by to tell him to keep it down. And his TKE brothers throw practical, kegless parties, charging money at the door that goes toward membership fees to the national office.
Diaz also interned at a corporate law firm specializing in bankruptcy and real estate; he put together marketing brochures the firm uses to lure clients. He is currently obsessing about the LSAT--he aimed for 160 but got 155, the lowest score he had deemed acceptable--and his chances at law school. For now he has opted not to go straight to law school, in favor of both building experience and earning money as a paralegal. He says he became a philosophy minor only because he thought it would help his law school chances. "I don't think you can get into law school without at least a minor," he says.
Acceptance of authority, fear of wasting time, focus on goals, gold stars for everyone--these don't just make Jack a dull boy, they also make him a wonderfully low liability. Really, could there be a more sinister way to keep students under control than to keep them spread paper-thin? Sort of able to play an instrument. Sort of good with Spanish. Sort of popular. Sort of athletic. Sort of smart. Sort of active in the community.
"I want everything to be fun, but there's always something to worry about," explains Diaz. When he says this, his posture shuffles. He straightens his cap, squares his shoulders and sits up. His face tightens, and his eyes harden. He looks older. "I wouldn't feel good about having my parents handle tuition and then just leave me to live my life."
College is depressing, literally. About one in four students is diagnosed with depression, according to an American College Health Association study released in November 2004. That's up from one in 10 in 2000. In the same study 40 percent of college men and half of college women reported feeling so depressed that they had "difficulty functioning" one or more times during the past school year. Similarly, a 2003 Kansas State University study of 10,000 college students at more than 100 colleges found that, between 1989 and 2001, the number of students with documented depression doubled, the number of suicides tripled and the number of students popping psychiatric pills shot up from one in 10 to one in four.
NYU is in a particularly tight spot. In 2003 and 2004, six students fell to their death, and five of the incidents were ruled suicides. Fears of an epidemic spurred nervous officials to try to get inside students' heads, to spot trouble before it boils over. But it's hard to know how cautious is too cautious. "If they say you're emotionally unstable--and they can pretty much say this for whatever reason they want--you get kicked out of school 'for your own safety,' or at least you get flagged--flagged then booted," Diaz says. "Nobody gets, you know, 'unflagged' or whatever." A cynical snarl skitters across his face and he pinches the air as he speaks, as if holding certain odious words and phrases with tongs.
GET USED TO IT
Today's stressed, depressed college students are tomorrow's adrift adults. Remember Alexandra Robbins, the alpha Yalie? She's now a noted critic of college life who has authored exposes on sorority culture and Yale's Skull and Bones society. In her latest book, Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice From Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived, she looks at 20- and 30-somethings who are crippled by doubt and depression over their to-do-list lifestyles and offers antidotes to the plague of hypercompetition. As opposed to the "What have I done?" midlife crisis, the quarterlife crisis often involves an inability to get started. "We're confronting our identity when we still have the freedom to change things, instead of when we're 40 and stuck with the decisions we've made," Robbins says. "A lot of people go to school--especially grad school or law school--just because they don't know how to do anything else."
Other quarterlifers seem to be making their way in the big world but are dogged by dissatisfaction. "It's never a bad thing to plan ahead," says Robbins, "but young people get in trouble when they think it's a sign of weakness or failure if, for example, they don't accomplish something by a specific age--promoted by 25, married by 28, home owner by 30. It's ridiculous." Hypercompetitiveness is becoming hyper-unhealthy, Robbins says. "It's a train wreck waiting to happen. Nobody should be living the life he or she planned as a 20-year-old kid."
Perhaps nowhere has the change in college culture been more pronounced than in Greek life. Animal House, Old School, Van Wilder--hell, Revenge of the Nerds--college fun has always fed off going Greek. Unfortunately, thanks to drinking and hazing deaths in their 1980s heyday, "a lot of Greek societies now tell students, 'We're only two lawsuits away from extinction,'" says Thomas Pitchford, a former fraternity advisor for Greek life at the University of Maryland. "Some colleges have just abandoned Greek life."
Numbers from the Center for the Study of the College Fraternities are grim. A 1992 survey found an average of 558 fraternity members and 168 pledges at each participating school. In 2000 the average school had just 356 fraternity brothers and 126 pledges.
After the national disgrace--both moral and financial--of losing more than a few multimillion-dollar lawsuits, the Greek system is changing. Seeing what he calls a downward spiral in the 1990s, Jon Williamson, executive vice president of the North American Interfraternity Conference, a trade association for the nation's 300,000 frat brothers and 4.5 million frat alumni, says Greeks decided in 1995 to invest millions into stomach-pumping alcohol from frat rows nationwide. Today an estimated 20 percent of the country's 5,000-plus frat houses are dry.
A Harvard study released in March 2004 set at 34 percent the proportion of colleges that have banned alcohol on campus for any student, regardless of age, and at 43 percent the proportion of schools prohibiting alcohol in all campus residence halls. Forty-four percent of all colleges restrict the use of alcohol during at least four of the following standard events: home sports games, tailgate parties, home pre- or postgame parties, homecoming, on-campus dances or concerts, on-campus banquets or receptions and even alumni events.
It's not as though college students could possibly benefit from a wild swing into the irresponsible hedonism of alcoholic coma, date rape and hazing death--parents and college lawyers can calm down. But colleges may benefit by taking a step back from their hyperbolic propaganda on rigor, excellence and achievement. Slackerdom and failure have their place in learning as well. To pretend otherwise runs the risk of forcing students to feel awkward about what was once praised as self-discovery and promotes an unrealistic desire to emerge in full splendor at the top of the heap. There is a give-and-take to all the pressures at work in undergraduate social life; the more attention paid to multiple majors, GPAs, student-body elections and the like, the less can be paid to developing a sense of humor, a personal philosophy and a play ethic as well as a work ethic.
In a January New York Times Magazine cover story about the demise of Greek life on campuses, much is made of Northwestern University's pooh-poohing a screening of Animal House at a philanthropic event co-sponsored by a sorority and a fraternity. Perhaps administrators feared that students would be energized by Bluto Blutarsky's speech, which is either famous or infamous, depending on your idea of what college life should be. "What the fuck happened to the Delta I used to know?" Blutarsky asks his cowed frat brothers. "Where's the spirit? Where's the guts, huh? 'Ooh, we're afraid to go with you, Bluto. We might get in trouble.' Well, just kiss my ass from now on. Not me. I'm not gonna take this."
SHAVING CREAM AND OTHER DELIGHTS
Zac Corker, a 2004 Harvard grad and the mellow son of a Hawaiian coffee farmer, took it for four years before convincing administrators to hire him after graduation to install a disco ball in the ivory tower as the university's fun czar. His goal is to officially energize students' party life in the most unbridled yet committee-sanctioned manner imaginable. Confetti rations, to be sure, are increasing at the Ivy League icon.
While an undergrad, Corker had built a reputation as an able party planner and started a much-needed website called HahvahdParties.com.With one of the site's co-founders heading to Alaska to work in a fishery and another jetting off for med school, Corker dropped the Peace Corps and his work with the Kerry campaign to take the helm of Harvard's social life. He petitioned deans to give him an administrative role in social organization, which they did in December with the creation of an annual fellowship.
Corker had earned his stripes, as well as the trust of Harvard administrators, by treading a fine line. His parties weren't dangerous, but they weren't lame, either. He knows which cocktails to serve--he mentions the blue Hawaiian and something called the magnum 313--but he also knows booze alone won't do it. If the occasion demands several cases of shaving cream (a favorite accessory) and a kiddie pool, so be it. "A fun time is not predicated on how much alcohol is there," he says. "Anyone who thinks that is just wrong. Just absolutely wrong." But he also told the student newspaper that there are three party formulas: (1) bad party + alcohol = bad party; (2) good party + no alcohol = good party; and (3) good party + alcohol = legendary.
Corker's crowning glory as a student was the Harvard State Party, which used the promotional tagline "Ever wanted to party like they do at that state school you could have coasted through?" Harvard has no fraternity houses, no student center and no fun mascot (founder John Harvard, described at Harvard.edu as "a pilgrim-like figure in 17th century dress," hardly counts). But on Veteran's Day 2003, Corker and company pulled out the big guns--a kid in a gorilla suit, a fog machine and some Christina Aguilera tunes--as about 450 Harvard State stu dents shunned elitism and got all low-brow with their bad selves.
"There's an intellectual battle over social life in college, about what it means. Do extracurricular activities count? Does having dinner at your professor's house count? Or is it just a beer in hand?" Corker says, adding, "In the past few years we've seen a shift to professionalism. People don't take chances--won't take, you know, that French class just for the sake of intellectual exploration. Intellectual exploration doesn't look too focused on a resume." He says with regret that students have abandoned or ignored the wisdom of the adage "Learn to fail or fail to learn."
Who knows what the runners will do at Michigan this April. If they don't use body paint, maybe they'll just print T-shirts with the word naked on them. After all, one symbol's as good as another.
EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE
Which brings us to Hamilton College in upstate New York. Past the now-dry SUNY Binghamton lies the tiny village of Clinton, where some kids carry the torch for an era of mindless fun that seems dead but may be only power-napping.
One day in late February Pete Holzaepfel, who graduated from Hamilton this summer, was busy hanging a banner promoting the debut of his documentary film. Nearly half the campus showed up to watch Buff & Blue, a seat-of-their-pants video made during fall break as the self-titled Hamilton College Varsity Streaking Team competed cheek-to-cheek with unsuspecting rivals. The conference tour, by the numbers: 12 colleges, five states, five days, one 30-foot RV, 18 students (men and women), three campus-security arrests and some dumbass fines that were quickly dropped. Unlike fake Michigan-style streakers, the Hamilton team went full throttle. Squawking and maintaining a V formation, it swooped down on campus lawns across New England like an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot gone horribly insane. The team ran naked through rugby and soccer games. Through classes. Through cafeterias. Through libraries, being sure to hush gawking bookworms. On one campus it led a naked fake orientation tour, using a bullhorn to offer typical, vague comments about what such-and-such building was used for, as the team sauntered along, casually taking in the campus as if the members were actual prospectives.
Asked what he thinks his streaking career may do for his future, or what he even plans to do postcollege, the tall and charismatic Holzaepfel (who was also student-body president) laughs. "I'm going to be a senator," he says while hanging a banner depicting a naked masked man running from a ball of fire. "Well, I dunno, but maybe a senator."
For the first time, I felt as though I was talking to a college student. Thank God.
Something else that makes the Hamilton situation heartwarmingly bizarre is the reaction of administrators to the streakathon: They were cool with it. So cool that they allowed the streakers to use the school's world-class auditorium, then signed off on an on-campus after-party and after-afterparty that plowed through five kegs and 30 cases of beer from nearby Utica, a brewing town. At one point the afterparty band made an open call for nudity; about a dozen men and women obliged, stripping and drinking and having fun.
Watching the party run its course, two of the team's top streakers--Adam Bedient, a 2004 grad, and Craig Moores, class of 2005--wondered what it all meant.
"Maybe this'll fizzle out," said Moores. "So what? Who cares? We're not trying for a legacy. It's just stupid. We get naked and run around. How stupid is that?"
"We didn't want to do something to last for the ages," Bedient added. "We just wanted to have a good time for ourselves. It's hilarious that we just showed a movie about our streaking to half the campus, and tonight we're having two parties and a band paid for by T-shirts we sold about this dumb hobby. That's fun."
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