Happy Valley is Not the Norm
On Christmas Eve, as I was shoveling snow from my western North Carolina mountain top driveway, I was also entertained by my faithful NPR, and, in particular, an Ira Glass segment from “This American Life” focusing on the binge drinking culture at Pennsylvania State University. Even for a seasoned higher education administrator such as myself, with over three decades experience at a similar type institution—i.e. residential, Division I intercollegiate revenue sports, with a strong social fraternity and sorority culture, I was amazed at what was reported.
I recommend your listening to this segment on-line, in spite of its graphic reportage of students so inebriated they are publicly urinating on the lawns of neighbors; and featuring such priceless anecdotes as a female student reporting she and her friends “weren’t slutty” until they came to college; and another female student who is joined by her parents for her twenty-first birthday drinking celebration, all gathered to get drunk.
I was reminded of a famous Pennsylvania resident, former US President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned prophetically in the 1950’s of what he described as a threat to our nation’s future from the “military industrial complex.” And, of course, many commentators have since added that what we developed was also the “military-industrial-university complex.” And now what I proclaim that we obviously have in such research university settings is an “alumni-big time sports-alcohol industry-college student dependent small business-higher education administration complex! And this “complex” is in collusion to enable these late adolescent adult world avoidance behaviors (along with a lot of adult alums who come to join and further enable them).
NPR, thankfully, has a huge listening audience. And I couldn’t help but hope that many of them were sophisticated enough to know that what was described as “student life” in Penn State’s “Happy Valley” is not what characterizes “student life” on the majority of US colleges and universities. The majority of students in our country are not drinking to excess, partying Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The majority can’t afford to do so for one thing, do not attend Division I institutions, are not members of Greek letter social organizations, do not live on college campuses, and have to work so many long hours at part and full-time jobs in addition to their college class time and work, that they couldn’t possibly experience college as Ira Glass saw it at a Penn State football weekend. That’s the big picture.
And we need to remind our fellow citizens of what the reality is, and ourselves too. Happy Valley is not the norm.
-John N. Gardner