On Sentimentality and College

One of the issues this whole fracas over Woodrow Wilson and Princeton brings up for me is just how sentimental we can be about college campuses and education. To listen to the critics of these Princeton students, you would think that until these students came along, there was a vital discussion happening on the college quad. On any given afternoon, undergraduates, in groups of four or five, would look up through the fall leaves and see Wilson’s name on one building, Nassau’s name on another, Firestone’s name (yes, that Firestone) on a third, and ask, wondrously, why is this building named after Wilson, Nassau, Firestone? Who were these men, what did they do, why should we be honoring them in this way? Then along come these students, with their nasty Stalinist ways, threatening to shut those vital little idylls down, with their simple zealous demand that Wilson’s name be cleansed from the campus.

I’ve been on college campuses since 1985, running the gamut from the most wealthy and elite to the most cash-starved and working class, and I have to say: that just isn’t my impression of how campuses actually work. I teach in William James Hall; the only person who ever asked me who William James was, was my seven-year-old daughter. Most students have other things to do. I know when I was an undergraduate I never asked these questions, and I was among the more bookish of my classmates.

Now most of the people slamming the Princeton students seem to be college graduates. So I wonder what their college experience was like—and more important how they now remember that experience. Was it really such a Socratic revelry of collective self-examination? Or was it the usual hash of study, sex, drink, and the occasional existential bull session about the meaning of life? (I’m now talking about elite campuses; my students at Brooklyn College seem mostly to be studying, working several jobs, taking care of younger siblings or children or grandparents, and commuting, commuting, commuting.) Are the critics of the students at Princeton indulging in a middle-aged man’s reverie for an experience that never was? Are they worried about their children? Or themselves? What issues are being worked out here? Whence this sentimentality?

It’s not just the Princeton controversy I’m thinking about. It’s the whole range of discussion—really, obsession—about what is happening on college campuses today. Where the default assumption seems to be that before These Students, it was a postcard of Oxbridge and Alcove 1.

Update (7:30 pm)

My Facebook friend Tim Lacy made a very wise observation in response to this blog post: There is one group of students on college campuses who do tend to engage in this kind of critical self-examination. Those who feel—or are made to feel—most out of place. That feeling leads them to ask questions about why they feel that way, which can lead to questions about names, buildings, the built environment of their learning. At places like Princeton, those students tend to be black or Latino/a.


  1. Charles Joseph November 22, 2015 at 7:40 pm | #

    Maybe it’s people remembering the way they were when they were young and they don’t like how 30-60 years later many people are gone and their body has aged and there youth is gone and the are frightened of impermanence lionize an invented past and long for something to be permanent. The floor is falling out and there’s no bottom.

  2. yastreblyansky November 22, 2015 at 7:45 pm | #

    Thanks for this. In 2013, about 29% of US college students followed the traditional model of full-time study at four-year schools; maybe a quarter of those being commuters living at home, and since only 40-some percent of all American 18-to-24s are enrolled in college of any sort, it’s really a pretty tiny number of young people living the dream of Horse Feathers and Animal House. That deep preoccupation with the fortunate few is so David Brooks–except as you point out for the recruited minority student who are made to feel out of place at every turn.

  3. xenon2 November 22, 2015 at 9:16 pm | #

    The comments in The Daily Princetonian come from students, allegedly at the uni and they are all negative about the protest.These comments seem immature.Comments like ‘Gender Neutral Origami (Pass-Fail)’ given as suggested course.

    The article was about 54 faculty members, signing a letter: ‘The signatories come from a number of departments and programs across the arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.’

    ‘No faculty member from the School of Engineering and Applied Science or the School of Architecture signed the letter.’

    When my relatives went to an elite college, they were part of diversity movement.They are ‘poor’, but white.
    They had come from a high school where black and white students were evenly-balanced, where
    black and white students were respected.At this elite school, they found black students clustered
    together, in overwhelmingly white population of students.

    Only 7% of students are African American.

    That maybe what’s going on here.

  4. Roqeuntin November 22, 2015 at 10:44 pm | #

    I’m going to take a contrary stance and say that it’s a little sentimental to think only wealthy college students party. I went to a land grant state school with few students who were anything above middle class and drinking was pretty much a full time occupation. The annual festival was shut down for years due to drunken rioting. Some of that probably had to do with it being a small town where there was precious little to do sober.

    We shouldn’t romanticize working class life or make it seem as if getting wasted is a the sole provision of the privileged. Drinking and recreational drug use span every class, creed, and ethnic background.

  5. Arik November 23, 2015 at 1:30 am | #

    Hi Corey,

    Personally I definitely did ask those questions, even (especially!) when answering them was uncomfortable for those whose jobs it was to answer.

    And what did I get with that experience? A crushing student load dept and a marked decrease in the marketability of my labor. I’m approaching 50 years old and my main financial concern is fraudulent debt for an education that I delivered to myself to the extent I received one at all, incurred in large part before I turned 18.

    I won’t pretend you are personally responsible. That would be a cheap rhetorical trick. In return please refrain from using cheap rhetorical tricks yourself, and tell me why I should think that voting for your preferred candidate has a better return than using the time to play x box instead.

  6. Lichanos November 23, 2015 at 10:15 am | #

    I went to Princeton, and I did not like it. I definitely felt out of place. (I’m white, BTW).

    I always hated the Woodrow Wilson School because it is an hideously ugly building by Minoru Yamasaki, and the interiors are awful. I also did not like the ethos of the institution.

    Wilson was a racist, pure and simple, and he also gave us our first full-blown red scare. As an internationalist, he was an abject failure, dragging us into WWI and then caving to the more cynical (more cynical than he) and experienced diplomats of the Old World. Naming a school of international relations after him is an unintentionally ironic commentary on the American Century that followed.

    One undergrad commented that if you only named buildings after men (mostly men) who were perfect, you wouldn’t name any of them. He has a point, but I’d just as soon have the building named the PU School of International Affairs and leave it at that. As for the residential college, given that WW did some positive things for the school – the precept system, etc. – I would be okay leaving that. The name would be a constant irritant and goad to discussion on the campus. So many of the pillars of society after whom such buildings are named were awful politically, slave traders, heirs of slave traders, reactionaries, etc. etc. I’m glad the students are making a rukus.

    That’s life in the pompous, self-satisfied elite college world. One reason I didn’t like it.

  7. Frank Wilhoit November 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm | #

    Here is the asymmetry. Naming a building after Whoms O’Ever is an honor. De-naming it is censorship.

    We don’t do censorship — any kind, for any reason, ever. That’s who we are. If that were not who we are, we would not be anyone. Censorship is their thing and their thing exclusively. This is the clearest and brightest of lines.

    • Tom November 23, 2015 at 10:07 pm | #

      Renaming a building is not censorship. It is removing an honor previously bestowed.

    • Lichanos November 24, 2015 at 11:57 am | #

      If Bill Gates offered $1B to PU with the stipulation that the Woodrow Wilson School be renamed after his father, I bet PU would take it, and who would cry “censorship!”

  8. Josh Lukin November 27, 2015 at 12:02 am | #

    I was a student at Johns Hopkins when the physics building, then called Rowland Hall, was renamed Krieger Hall. Students actually did know who the physicist Rowland had been but were foggy on the identity of the donor Krieger. The change, while met with some eye-rolling, was not perceived as censorship.

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