I RECENTLY did some research for a satirical novel set at a university. The idea was to have a bunch of gags about how colleges prostitute themselves to improve their U.S. News & World Report rankings and keep up a healthy supply of tuition-paying students, while wrapping their craven commercialism in high-minded-sounding academic blather.
I would keep coming up with what I thought were pretty outrageous burlesques of this stuff and then run them by one of my professor friends and he’d say, Oh, yeah, we’re doing that.
One of my best bits, or so I thought, was about how the fictional university in my novel had hired a branding consultant to come up with a new name with the hip, possibility-rich freshness needed to appeal to today’s students. Two weeks later, a friend called to say it was on the front page of The Times: “To Woo Students, Colleges Choose Names That Sell.” Exhibit A was Beaver College, which had changed its name to Arcadia University. Applications doubled.
I also had created a character, a former breakfast-cereal executive who returns to his alma mater as vice president for finance (to give something back) and tries to get everyone to call the students customers. It turns out Yale was already doing that.
I knew that Tom Lehrer, the great satirical songwriter of the 60’s, had said he had to give up satire when it kept being overtaken by reality. The final straw, he said, was Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
My final straw came when a friend at Case Western Reserve University (now referred to as Case, after their consultant concluded that all great universities have single-word names) sent me a packet of information on the university’s new showcase undergraduate seminar program. Called SAGES (this supposedly stands for Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship), the program offers as an essential component of its core intellectual experience an upscale cafe that serves Peet’s Coffee and is “staffed by baristas whose expertise in preparing espresso is matched only by their authoritative knowledge of all things SAGES.”
As the program’s Web site explains (complete with footnotes, bibliography and quotes from the urban theorist Jane Jacobs): “In the bustling personal-but-impersonal rhythms of campus activity, as in the streets of a big city, proprietors of public establishments occupy a special position… The SAGES cafe staff are patently not interested in providing grades or passing judgment.” And, not only that, but “there are no compromises that would undermine the quality of our drinks…. Our chai latte is made not from a bottled concentrate, but from a fresh-brewed base made from scratch every day on site.”
As a model of pandering to students in the guise of lofty academic purpose, I thought that was pretty hard to top. Then I started reading the 92-page guide Case has created for teachers of these seminars.
If students fidget, talk or walk out of class, the guide advises seminar leaders not to “manage” such behaviors, but to explore their underlying causes. Instructors must remember that to such characteristically American cultural beliefs as the importance of morality, rationality and personal responsibility, there are equally valid alternatives that must be respected.
Instructors must be wary of spurious objectivity, such as a 0-100 grading scale; much better is a 0-5 scale, or, best of all, a check, check-plus, check-minus scale. And finally, if students do not contribute to discussions at all, seminar leaders should “make space for silence.”
It’s enough to drive a satirist to something stronger than chai latte.
Stephen Budiansky is the author, most recently, of “Her Majesty’s Spymaster.”