Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College
By Andrew Ferguson
(Simon & Schuster/228 pp/$25)
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
By Professor X
(Viking, 258 pages, $25.95)
Andrew Ferguson, senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a widely published journalist who, like so many of today’s best conservative writers, took his basic training at The American Spectator, begins this saga by consulting his own experience. After taking tests and writing essays, he was told by his career counselor at Occidental: “You must understand…that you have no marketable skills whatsoever.”
“So I became a journalist.”
He shares this anecdote, he writes, “because it encapsulates a larger confusion I have encountered in my….recent efforts to wedge my son into college. While expending vast amounts of money and energy on higher education-both selling it and buying it-we seem not to be sure what it’s for.”
How do parents pay that annual bill that can run $40,000? For advice and guidance, “especially the glories of subsidy and debt, we were expected to rely on the touts of colleges, the College Board, and the Education Department, the whole higher-ed establishment….But please don’t ask why the bills are so enormous in the first place.”
Apparently, it has little to do with acquiring knowledge. Today, says Ferguson, there are “college graduates who can scarcely write a complete sentence and identify John Quincy Adams as the bass player for the Funkadelics.” Rather, the obsession about which Ferguson writes, perhaps most intense if not largely peculiar to the Northeast, where people tend to be obsessive, is focused on the admission process itself.
The notion, spreading like a virus, is that your kid just has to get admitted into a place that the neighbors view as suitable, and if that doesn’t happen you’ve failed as a parent. As Ferguson describes it, it’s become a test of parenthood-a contest involving “our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children.”
As part of that contest, Ferguson writes, there’s a “large, lucrative, and parasitic industry” that has “puckered up and suctioned itself onto the tumescent host of college admissions.” A friend tells him about a woman he “could hire to take all my college worries upon herself and resolve them without fuss. I thought she sounded like a yuppie version of the sin eaters who once served the villages of Ye Olde Scotland.”
“But it will cost you,” his friend added. “A lot.”
Forty thousand dollars: that’s how much it would take to hire one of the country’s most notable independent college admission counselors, Katherine Cohen, for a full-service “platinum package” of advice and guidance that would last from the first starry dreams of ivy-covered brick to the day of matriculation.
Ferguson talks to Kat (as she prefers to be called) as a journalist, and travels with her as she sells her platinum package to a group of mothers in Greenwich, Connecticut, a group warmed up by a banker who tells them it will soon cost $1 million a year to send three kids to college. Money aside, Ferguson asks Kat about the admission prospects for his son, now a high school junior. She questions him on the steps he’s taken so far-making a list of colleges, visiting campuses, taking SAT preps. He’s done none of them.
“Oooooh,” she said. “Baaaaaaad daaaaaaad.”
Bad or not, Dad has been bitten, and he jumps into the college admission process with both feet. There are setbacks. He and his son go for an interview with a high school adviser.
“I can tell you the kind of school I’d really like,” my son told the college counselor, with an air of finality. “I want to go to a place where I can go to a football game, take off my shirt, paint my chest, and major in beer.”
Bad, he thinks. Nevertheless, the quest is on. Ferguson focuses in on those all-important SAT exams that Kat emphasized.
It was a bright, breezy morning of drifting sunlight and chorusing birds, so I decided to ruin it by taking the SAT.
I had to keep reminding myself, as I plowed my way through one section after another, that this boring test, this heaping mass of tedium, is, paradoxically, the most passionately controversial element in the world of college admissions. That something so dull could have an effect so pyrotechnical is hard to credit. It’s as if the Trojan War had been fought over Bette Midler.
His scores, he writes, “were close to disaster,” except for the essay, which he thinks he aced. But when he asks his son for confirmation, he finds he violated the guidelines by failing to provide supporting examples, “jumping around a lot” (he defends that as “juxtaposition”), and ending with a question instead of making a point.
His son’s final evaluation: “I’m sure that’s okay for a magazine or a book….But this is the SAT. You can’t get away with that stuff on the SAT.”
The SAT, writes Ferguson, was initially designed by liberals to neutralize what they thought of as admission policies discriminating against minorities. But today, as we evolve toward perfection and everything sooner or later seems to discriminate against minorities, “the SAT is officially just the SAT; the letters don’t stand for anything, as if the test makers were too timid to declare what they’re up to.”
“And you can’t blame them. The SAT is a flash point where questions of class and culture, wealth and politics, race and gender, the purpose of higher education, and varying definitions…of merit rub against and throw sparks when they don’t burst into flames.”
He points out that more than 1.5 million kids take the SAT every year, and high-school counselors build whole curriculums around it. “The test-prep business continues to boom. Kaplan is the sole profit center of its corporate parent, the Washington Post Company. If you can afford to keep a metropolitan newspaper afloat, you’re making a lot of money.”
Ferguson takes us with him on his quest, from campus visits (at Harvard, “the admissions office was housed in an old forbidding brick pile fronted by a stone porch and thick columns-what Tara would have looked like if it had been built by Calvinists”), through a discussion of the college rating system (which kept U.S. News alive and flourishing long after the magazine died), and how the complex loan system is structured.
THEN, SUDDENLY, suddenly, it’s over. After the agony and all that analysis, his son is admitted to the university he wanted to go to in the first place-BSU, Big State University, as Ferguson calls it (a.k.a. University of Virginia). “My son was about to leave home for college, and my daughter was not far behind. A phase of life-the most important part of it, the years of rearing children-was coming to an end.”
There are good family leaving-home scenes, among them watching movies together. “For American men, especially the denatured fathers of the suburban middle class, the Godfather movies act as a binding agent.… Godfather II is central to the native customs of my people. I have initiated my son into this knowledge.” That night, watching it with his son, “the movie suddenly disclosed to me new facets of my own obsession. Michael Corleone himself, of course, is a college dropout, having disappointed his father by enlisting in the army and fighting the Nazis.” (Minor correction here: Michael Corleone enlisted in the Marines, not the Army; he fought the Japanese, not Nazis.)
The family drives him to the campus and leaves him at his dorm, and we enter the final phase, with Ferguson reflecting on the meaning of it all, lost childhood, endings and beginnings, and T. S. Eliot, among other maudlin things.
His wife pulls him up short: “This is a moment we should be proud of. We did it. We raised him to be a strong, kind, happy, self-confident young man, and we succeeded. It’s what we were supposed to do.”
That assertion hits dead center, Ferguson concludes with a paragraph describing a gas-pump nozzle mishap, undercutting any surge of sentimentality but actually heightening the emotional impact of his wife’s simple but eloquent statement, a statement that sums it all up.
Ferguson is an acute observer, a writer with balance and a remarkable talent-a mannerist working in the tradition of the New Journalism, pioneered by writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, which applied many of the techniques of fiction to the factual business of reporting. Like the best of the New Journalists, Ferguson is able to keep his role-and himself-in perspective. And like the best products of the New Journalism, his book, while showering us with facts, reads and moves like a good novel.
HAD ANDREW FERGUSON inspected the basement of one of those ivied campus buildings he’d visited, he might have found Professor X lurking there, like the troll under the bridge.
In 2008, Professor X wrote an article (same title as this book) for the Atlantic, an article that caused a good deal of comment among members of the higher-educationist establishment who hate any hint of criticism of the product they peddle.
The Professor X of the article (and this book) works as an adjunct at a small private college and a junior college (an adjunct is in effect an independent contractor, teaching for a modest fee per course, with none of the benefits afforded to regular faculty), his primary function being to teach freshman English.
In the Atlantic article, he lamented the belief that everyone should have a college degree, and portrayed himself as an academic hit man. “For I,” he wrote somewhat dramatically,
who teach these low-level…classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most basic skills…. that they are in some cases barely literate…not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.
I am the man who has to lower the hammer.
We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, “a thing of blood, whose every motion/Was timed with dying cries.”
Over the top, perhaps, for someone hired to teach a couple of courses in basic freshman English. Nor does he explain why the approach he brings to the classroom helps freshmen to write expository prose. “I rattle on about Kafka and Joyce and Gwendolyn Brooks…trying to wring college-level prose from students whose skills may just graze the lower reaches of high school.” Kafka? James Joyce?
Nevertheless, as an indictment of the push for universal college enrollment, the Atlantic article was effective-so effective that someone persuaded Professor X (actually, Instructor X) to flesh it out into a book.
But the problem is that he has nothing more to say about higher education-he’s said it in the article. So he says it all again, with as much padding as possible. The Coriolanus metaphor, for instance, expands to cover several more pages. But that’s not going to fill up 200-plus pages. And so what’s left to tell us about? Unfortunately, it’s himself.
As he shows himself, he’s the quintessential “pointy-headed professor who can’t park his bicycle straight,” as George Wallace once elegantly put it. True. He doesn’t ride a bicycle. But he drives an old heap with a headlight that doesn’t work and a radiator that leaks, and has no idea of what to do about either. We learn that he has great difficulty in mowing his lawn, uncomfortable with the lawn mower. “My lawn is large and my mower small…I wear discards from my work wardrobe: shorts cut from old work trousers, a frayed pinpoint oxford, wingtips without socks. I feel like the neighborhood tatterdemalion.”
In addition to his MFA, he tells us, he has an unpublished novel, to which the publisher to whom he sent it took an unreasonable dislike. But that’s the way publishers are. He bought a house he deserved but couldn’t afford just before the great housing collapse, and is now stuck with an old house and a large mortgage. This damned economic system. It’s the house, he believes, that lies at the heart of his marital problems.
His wife doesn’t seem to like him. When she’s mentioned-although she seldom gets speaking lines (there are also kids, somewhere offstage)-it’s usually in connection with a quarrel over the house. “The house we bought….has soured our life together. We fight bitterly now…it was about grout. The bathroom grout…Our dirty grout and chimneys in need of repointing…We move in a hangover of gloom.”
It’s also the house he blames for forcing him to assume the role of the community college Coriolanus. Because of the housing collapse, he had to find a way to make extra money, and with his MFA, part-time teaching seemed appropriate. In all, he’s been doing it for 10 years now. And he seems to loathe it. At the end of the Coriolanus comparison, padded out for the book version, he ends the lamentation over his job with a plaintive cry: “But what can I do?”
For God’s sake man, we might answer, get another job. But the fact is, although we hear as little about it as we hear his wife’s voice, he already has one-a full-time government job-a career job that he has held for some time, and that he mentions only in passing, with a condescending sneer. “I labor in a rather dreary corner of the government,” he says.
Odd, when you’re tap-dancing to fill pages with personal details-unless those details don’t jibe with the image of a crusader for educational reform. A government employee with a steady job, guaranteed pension, and all those benefits, picking up a few thousand easy bucks for a little extra work? He never tells us what he does for the government or where he does it. But perhaps that will be the novel.
A word of warning to potential buyers of an education for their kids: You might want to check out the basement before buying the bricks and ivy and tweeds to see who’s really going to be teaching them. If there’s a professor X down there with an MFA, an unhappy life, and resentments, run for it.
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