Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy Valley is Not the Norm

On Christmas Eve, as I was shoveling snow from my western North Carolina mountain top driveway, I was also entertained by my faithful NPR, and, in particular, an Ira Glass segment from “This American Life” focusing on the binge drinking culture at Pennsylvania State University. Even for a seasoned higher education administrator such as myself, with over three decades experience at a similar type institution—i.e. residential, Division I intercollegiate revenue sports, with a strong social fraternity and sorority culture, I was amazed at what was reported.

I recommend your listening to this segment on-line, in spite of its graphic reportage of students so inebriated they are publicly urinating on the lawns of neighbors; and featuring such priceless anecdotes as a female student reporting she and her friends “weren’t slutty” until they came to college; and another female student who is joined by her parents for her twenty-first birthday drinking celebration, all gathered to get drunk.

I was reminded of a famous Pennsylvania resident, former US President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned prophetically in the 1950’s of what he described as a threat to our nation’s future from the “military industrial complex.” And, of course, many commentators have since added that what we developed was also the “military-industrial-university complex.” And now what I proclaim that we obviously have in such research university settings is an “alumni-big time sports-alcohol industry-college student dependent small business-higher education administration complex! And this “complex” is in collusion to enable these late adolescent adult world avoidance behaviors (along with a lot of adult alums who come to join and further enable them).

NPR, thankfully, has a huge listening audience. And I couldn’t help but hope that many of them were sophisticated enough to know that what was described as “student life” in Penn State’s “Happy Valley” is not what characterizes “student life” on the majority of US colleges and universities. The majority of students in our country are not drinking to excess, partying Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The majority can’t afford to do so for one thing, do not attend Division I institutions, are not members of Greek letter social organizations, do not live on college campuses, and have to work so many long hours at part and full-time jobs in addition to their college class time and work, that they couldn’t possibly experience college as Ira Glass saw it at a Penn State football weekend. That’s the big picture.

And we need to remind our fellow citizens of what the reality is, and ourselves too. Happy Valley is not the norm.

-John N. Gardner


  1. This reminds me of when I was in the U.S. Navy. In recruit traning, everyone said this, of course, isn't the "real" Navy, wait until be are assigned a to duty station. In class A school (not the real Navy) wait until we are aboard a ship. On a Destroyer (not the real Navy) the Aircraft Carriers are the real thing. On shore duty (definitely not the the real Navy). When my enlistment tour was over and upon reflection I probably was in the real Navy in every case. I only hope (as you do) that anyone who has experienced higher education knows what reality is and in fact there may be no generalizations for a perceived norm. For those not so experienced, I accept your challenge to inform them.

  2. And your comment on my blog reminds me of my own military experience—entering the “real” Air Force as opposed to the one on my initial training base. I had attended Basic and Officer Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and then was shipped to my “PCS”, permanent change of station, Shaw Air Force Base, in Sumter, S.C. for a duty assignment as a psychiatric social worker in the 363rd Tactical Hospital. I was looking forward to helping others in need but, as a white, liberal, young man from the Northeast, very leery about being stationed in the “deep south” just two years after the Civil Rights Act and one year after the Voting Rights Act. But things began to look immediately more promising when I arrived to check in at my duty station late at night on the Wednesday, January 10, 1967. As I was escorted over to my quarters and as I went outside and put my “cover” on, I was promptly told to “Relax, we don’t wear hats in the hospital area, and we don’t salute, and we don’t shine our shoes!” This was my first introduction to “the real Air Force” as opposed to the one I had learned about in my training.

    In retrospect, I have to wonder about how our beginning college students first begin to experience “the real college” (or University) as opposed to what they have read about it or heard about it in our official organs of communication. And when they first realize this difference, is it more or less likely to be a favorable one? I also wonder what we would have to do to have more congruence between what we tell our students to expect and what they actually encounter.