WHEN CHARLES BLAIR'S parents arrived in January 1976 to see their son graduate from the University of Michigan, he was nowhere to be found. His roommates "said he had gone to hunt ducks that morning." Unbeknownst to his parents, the frantic academic pace Blair had set for himself in order to graduate early and "beat out the June race for jobs" had taken its toll. He had failed three courses and had no hope of graduating any time soon. It was a week before his frozen body was found in the woods outside Ann Arbor, with a .12 gauge shotgun nearby. Blair had taken his own life, simply because, as one university official explained, "the pressures were too bad."
Blair's tragic story is part of "the dark side of college life" in the 1970s explored by Lansing Lamont in Campus Shock. This is not a report on dangerous drugs or campus violence. Neither does it concern itself with salacious goings-on in coed dormitories. Rather, it explores the problems of "that significant minority of students...unable to cope with the relentless academic and social pressures of the decade:" careerism, cheating, crime, the new morality.
Campus Shock is a grim and thought-provoking account of the lives of quiet (and sometimes frantic) desperation being played out against the ivy-covered backdrop of America's finest colleges and universities.
The campuses of the '70s have been noticably quieter than those of the '60s.Class attendance is up, the libraries are full, and the midnight oil is burning in greater quanities than in many years past. But, says Lamont, if students are "no longer...on the evening news screaming obscenities at the Establishment," it does not necessarily follow that they are "secure and thriving in college." Lamont, a journalist and the father of four college-aged children, sees many of today's students as "unhappy, beset by tension, trapped in insecurity and frustration," victims of what a Princeton chaplain called "an epidemic of despair" among America's college elite.
What makes Campus Shock so powerful are the words of students themselves, gleaned from hundreds of interviews on the campuses of eight Ivy League schools on the East Coast, as well as at the university of Michigan, Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Chicago.
Lamont sees pressures of all types contributing to the deterioration of college environments. In addition to academic demands, there is the need to find suitable housing, which has driven many students off the protected campus preserve and into what are often dangerous, crime ridden neighborhoods. On the sexual front, many students, says Lamont, find the absence of curfews, and the relaxed restrictions in coed dormitory life, etc., afford better opportunities for bed-hopping and heart-breaking. In the final analysis, most said they weren't "prepared for this new unruled world." Add to this the specter of unemployment, which hangs like a sword over most college students as each year they see the number of graduates outstripping the available jobs.
The results are not surprising, says Lamont. Students are switching to more marketable majors, such as business and engineering. Liberal arts have suffered, because of the growing sentiment that, as a Stanford freshman quipped, "being able to discuss Hegel won't feed you."
In the fields of law and medicine, the situation has become desperate. Exam periods are tense as undergraduates jockey for favorable application status at leading schools. The law and medical schools have worsened the situation, by hiking tuition and adopting the discouraging attitude of a Penn official, that "having straight A's really doesn't distinguish you anymore." As Lamont says, "at least three quarters of the students rejected by leading medical schools were acknowledged to be fully qualified."
Cheating has also reached epidemic proportions, and many students caught cheating no longer seem guilty or remorseful. They shrug it off as "a natural impulse." Then too, administrators often seem reluctant to deal with infractions as strictly as they once did, as offenses get harder to prove, and parents seem more eager to call in the lawyers when expulsion (and the consequent loss of investment) is threatened.
In this atmosphere flourish the "amoral careerists," as Lamont calls them. They are the sterile, bloodless intellects whose prime motivations are the grade point average and the dollar sign. The majority of those "amoral careerists" who head for law school choose corporate law over the less lucrative public interest areas. In medicine, also, they choose the best-paying, least risky specialties, rather than public service positions. In the words of Robert Berlinger, the dean of the Yale medical school, "the desire to do good for humanity is not a very high motivating factor" among medical students.
Lamont gives the colleges credit for attempting to reverse these trends with counseling programs, revised curriculae and a heightened emphasis on ethics and morality in all spheres of college life. Whether these measures will be sufficient to halt the movement toward moral neutrality is another question.
Those students, like Charles Blair, who are unable to cope with the rigors of college life are poignantly profiled in a chapter Lamont has entitled, simply, "The Casualties." They flock to the psychiatry departments, psychological centers, counseling offices and campus ministries, seeking assurance that there is something to live for, and that college is part of it.
Others, too far gone, leap into the gorges of Cornell, or out of the bell towers at Berkeley and Stanford. They are the statistics which make suicide "second only to accidents as a cause of death on college campuses."
It is part of Lamont's thesis that the elite colleges, in striving to produce erudite, morally committed men and women, are swimming upstream against the current of a society left bewildered by Watergate and financially strapped by inflation. The author wonders how much longer America's venerable institutions of higher learning can keep their heads above water.
To help revitalize our system of higher education, Lamont offers some time-honored suggestions for a return to traditional values in learning. Grade inflation should be rolled back, and the core curriculum of basic courses restored, to return lost credibility to the system of grading. Teachers should be paid a decent wage and singled out for merit raises and promotions. Immediate action should be taken to eliminate racist attitudes and conduct on campus. The option to live in single-sex dormitories should be restored, and, most importantly, alternate career routes must be made available to those students who are not law, medical or business school-bound.
Lamont acknowledges that his is not an educator or an administrator; indeed, his book is presented from a refreshingly unpretentious point of view. Rather, his concerns and suggestions are (or should be) those of all parents of college-age students: that their children be given the option to attend school in an atmosphere that is as free from undue pressure and expectation as possible. This, Lamont feels, is the only way to shed a fresh, new light on the dark side of college life