looking for colleges
In addition to my other jobs I have had the pleasure of participating in my son Ben's college search this fall. The experience is a challenging one on a number of levels. For one there is the sheer logistical challenge of getting back and forth to the colleges, which seem to specialize in inconvenient locations and--like one man's sperm blocking entry of another's--appear to intentionally schedule events so as to make visits to more than one school difficult or impossible. No less painful is the realization that one's children do not share one's educational or career goals and indeed, if one was to embrace their objectives, would immediately change them so as to deny you the satisfaction. (Per Maggie Scarf, the world's expert on such matters, the oldest child's emergence from the nest is also prime time for marital crises, but so far we have averted this, if only because neither of us has the energy to raise any of the various issues that we might disagree about).
Of the physical and psychological challenges the latter are infinitely more strenuous. Like most academics I pictured my children being interested in the origins of the First World War or the differences between French and Italian grammar. Ben has the eminently more sensible goal of being a news or sports journalist, and understandably seeks a school that will help him advance this goal. He also has the completely incomprehensible idea that college should be fun rather than a four (seven? ten?) year pursuit of elusive truths. At presentations about academic excellence, while Anne and I sit attentively, he shifts nervously in his seat or IM's friends on his father's Blackberry. By contrast discussions of sports, social life, or the campus dining service, which leave Anne and I shaking our heads, have him rapt with attention and enthusiasm. Needless to say, he is indifferent to financial concerns, other than perhaps to favor those schools that cost the most and offer the least scholarship aid.
College shopping is also an interesting window into universities and how they market themselves. Schools at a medium-to-upper level--especially private universities--tend to market themselves very aggressively, frequently emphasizing their lifestyle amentities and the "real world" connections of their faculty rather than more traditional academic concerns. By contrast, at the very top, they seem to specialize in stressing their exclusivity and all but daring the visitors to apply. At one Ivy League college in central New York State, which I happened to attend several years ago, the presenter eschewed all manner of technical aides (PowerPoint, movies, etc.), instead regaling the audience for two hours on the rigors of the academic program and what pitfalls to avoid on the application essay. Sensing the dread on people's faces, I raised my hand and suggested that this was also an enjoyable school to attend, although I graduated when Carter was president and have no idea what it is like today. "Oh yes, that's a good point," the presenter said, and went back to his statistics. My son was not so easily fooled. "This isn't going to work," he whispered, and asked to borrow my Blackberry.