DISARMAMENT PACT? I've long maintained that the positional arms race to get into the hundred universities claiming to be among the top 40 is a flight from access-assessment-remediation-retention. I've also long maintained that the prestige hierarchy is over-rated, with motivated professors and motivated students being able to interact well and stretch their brains no matter where they are. Now comes Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, which reinforces the point in an indirect way. Yes, the book has been out for a long time, and this Book Review No. 29 may be so 2004. I brought a few things to read on the train, and yes, I read them all. Because so many people are familiar with the plot, the review will be relatively brief. Gifted and principled girl from poor and religious family gets scholarship to highly-rated private university chock full of trustafarians, obsessed with excellence in (too many to be prototypic) sports, gets overwhelmed with how very different the lives of the rich and dissolute are from her own. Bad stuff happens. There's a quip about Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (seventieth degree of latitude and last degree of platitude) that summarizes more than a few of the Amazon consumer reviews, and perhaps those gripes are on point. It is possible for a professor to do his work without learning much about the behavior of his charges, whether that behavior is dissolute or not, and I can therefore not call Mr Wolfe out for overgeneralizing from a small sample. Longitudes and platitudes, or perhaps caricature? If true, perhaps the ability of the rich to buy position for their offspring is restricted by their offsprings' dissolution.
There are, however, deeper questions that the book provokes. Why, despite the efforts of administrators, abetted by the Radical Students and with the passive acceptance of the Careerists or the Apathetic or some of the Nontraditionals, to exorcise the Greek Demons, does the Greek system persist and thrive? Perhaps there is something evolutionarily stable about the scamming and status-seeking and fake politeness (the levels of Sarc instruct and amuse) that provide the book's plot twists. Perhaps there is something else, possibly augmenting human capital in finance, insurance, real estate, or sales, that the sometimes superficial and sometimes destructive party scene provides. (That scene is not for university only.) And why, despite the understanding of Everyone In Authority that the athletic programs are money sinks that all too often reflect badly on the universities, do they persist? Possible dissertation topics or future posts a-plenty, without 500 pages of development?
The Spring 2008 Academic Questions included a Carol Iannone interview of Mr Wolfe. Charlotte Simmons came up. Mr Wolfe described his ending as the "most tragic" of three he was considering. His forgone alternatives were Charlotte "totally ruined" or instigating a "moral rearmament movement." I disagree with his characterization. She's dating a basketball player, although he has to "win her affections." It's March. Whether he has the opportunity to go pro remains to be determined. The Basketball Annies are still about. She's a second-semester freshman. The ambiguity is perfect.
(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge).