The gripes of academe

The gripes of academe

I dropped off my oldest this week for his junior year at college. It was a painfully beautiful post-hurricane kind of day, and the campus sparkled as we made our way across the quad to the dining hall. I had a backpack slung over my shoulder, and I began to get all nostalgic for my own college days.

That feeling lasted, oh, seven seconds.

I wasn’t miserable at college, exactly, but the best memories are usually crowded out by the things that drove me crazy. Hallmates with phone booth-sized stereo speakers blaring night and day. The overheated library. Sizing footnotes on an electric typewriter. Waiting in the cold for a campus bus that never showed up. The annual scramble for the right room in the right dorm — a room that wasn’t available in a dorm that didn’t exist.

In the pre-PC era, you picked classes by crowding into the campus center, where teaching assistants sat behind boxes of “class cards.” If you were lucky, there was a spot in the class and a card in the box. If not, you had to race to the professor’s office and beg him or her to let in just one more student. Meanwhile, if you weren’t able to take the 9:30 a.m., Tuesday-Thursday section of American Lit, you had to sign up for the 3 p.m., Monday-Wednesday section, which meant you could only take the Stats course on Thursday afternoons, when you were signed up for a Journalism workshop.

And don’t get me started on laundry. Too late: Our dorm had a bank of machines in constant use. If you were lucky enough to find an empty washer, you could only pray that a dryer would be available when your load was done. Of course, after tossing quarters in the dryer, nobody stuck around to see if the clothes actually got dry. Sopping socks and underwear would sit for hours in cold dryers, leaving you the choice of either piling the wet mass on top of the machine or doing the mentschy — and unthinkable — thing of adding a few quarters to a stranger’s load.

These are, admittedly, what have come to be known as First World Problems — the kinds of crises that loom large only to people who can look forward to three meals a day, a roof over their heads, and the privilege of attending a four-year university as opposed to, say, toting an AK-47 in a rebel army. And yet I continue to share these bellyaches with my kids, in the time-honored tradition of explaining how good they have it compared to when I was a kid.

Because here’s the thing: For almost every thing that drove me nuts about college, there is now a technological fix. My son chooses classes on a website. An iPhone app can tell him when a washing machine is available and when his load is ready for pickup. (If there was a Nobel Prize in solving First World Problems, I would like to see it shared by whoever invented this app and the guys who developed the little cardboard sleeves that fit around a hot paper coffee cup.) Another site tells him when a campus bus is scheduled to arrive, and an LED sign at the stop itself offers reassurances that the shuttle is only five minutes away.

Thanks to iPods, kids only damage their own hearing when listening to music. The overheated campus library is a thing of the past because no one goes to campus libraries anymore. Why bother, when WikiPedia has done all the plagiarizing for you?

If my kids are deprived of anything, it is only the satisfaction of banking gripes to share with their kids. What are they going to complain about? “In my day, messages were sent to a hand-held screen, instead of chips implanted in your brain’s cortex.” (Although, let’s face it, every technological advance creates its own dissatisfaction. I call this the “Jetsons Perplex,” after an episode of the cartoon in which George Jetson complains about his 10-minute commute to the moon.)

Apparently there are people for whom college was a golden time in their lives. They are excited about sending their offspring to their alma mater, where they will continue a family tradition of scholarship, leadership, romance, and shame-free shenanigans. These people are known as WASPs. We Jews do things differently. My wife took our oldest on a visit to her alma mater, and it turned into an extended therapy session. “Here’s where I used to go to be sad,” she’d tell him. “And here’s my old room, which I wouldn’t leave for weeks at a time.”

Luckily, he appears immune to our mopey mishegoss. And it’s not just that technology has solved his problems: He’s learned to ignore the kinds of things I would obsess over, and actually does college right. He studies and keeps his grades up (did I mention the study? Something else I hated…). He’s heavily involved in a few key teams and clubs. He parties hearty but responsibly.

In short, the boy is nuts about college. His parents? Just nuts.

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