Reviews

Binge by Barrett Seaman

Jason B. Jones

As "one male Ivy League junior" affirmed, "It's easier to go out and get fucked up and hook up than be sober and ask a girl on a date and get nothing for it".


Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0470049189
Author: Barrett Seaman
Price: $14.95
Length: 246
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2006-09
UK publication date: 2006-10-03
Amazon

One has to forgive Barrett Seaman his title: He's a former reporter for Time, and it's clear that the peculiar brand of hype and reportage that drives the major newsweeklies hasn't faded. I want to stress, though, right from the start, that this book is neither a sensationalist account of "those kids today" nor a hatchet job fomenting popular discontent with academe. Seaman is a trustee at Hamilton College, of which he is an alum (and, as he stresses in several chapters, a former Deke), and this book arose from his increasing sense of the gap between his memories of college and life on campuses today. And while the book occasionally reads like an extended Time piece, it makes an important cluster of arguments that are worth everyone's attention.

Let's get the limitations out of the way first. Binge unapologetically focuses on elite schools -- Hamilton, Middlebury, Dartmouth, Harvard, Stanford, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Berkeley -- because it's primarily concerned with the residential experience as it's been mythologized in the boomer imagination. As a result, some parts of the book won't fit all schools, although, as he points out, there is a kind of trickle-down effect in campus culture and structure across most colleges and universities. The other main weakness is temperamental: Seaman has the bias toward individualism shared by many mainstream reporters. As a consequence, in chapters on diversity and on date rape, he can sometimes be too quick to downplay systemic explanations, and to credit protestations of good intentions.

But what Binge does quite well is show -- in an accessible, lively account -- how modern university life confirms daily that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In particular, Seaman is concerned to argue that modern America's utterly and directly perverse combination of cultural permissiveness with absurd middle-class parental overprotectiveness (the "helicopter parent" phenomenon) intersects with certain unintended consequences of the professionalization of student affairs. The result has been a confluence of forces that, on the one hand, discourage students from genuine development (as opposed to credentialing), and, on the other hand, promote dangerous outcomes.

Most of his complaints are directed at modern America in general, not college campuses. For example, it is hardly an individual college's fault that the legal age for drinking is 21. However, Seaman correctly points out that the primary effects of this limit are: First, it glamorizes alcohol as something truly adult ("you're adult in every way but this one ..."), and second, it encourages high-risk drinking behavior, such as loading up in the dorm room before you go out. Even as consistent messages against drinking and driving have reduced the incidence of driving while intoxicated, colleges today see a far greater incidence of hospitalization for alcohol poisoning. The example of drinking provides a template for most of his arguments: The effort to raise the drinking age to 21 was obviously well intentioned, but the effort to make students safer has only put certain students at greater risk.

Seaman also points out the obvious fact that eludes many people in their 20s, both in and out of college: A sexual culture predicated on "hooking up," a phrase so elastic that it can range from intense kissing to intercourse, is by design a sexual culture that invites date rape. The students he interviews prefer hook-ups to dating because they're informal and flexible. (A situation epitomized by the notion of "friends with benefits.") But informality and flexibility can quickly tip into confusion and miscommunication, and two people with conscious intentions to hook up one night may well mean very different things by that. As he points out, one of the retrospective benefits of traditional dating arrangements is that the roadmap to sex was pretty clearly spelled out. (Neither Seaman nor I imagine that rape didn't occur under the traditional system.) The prevailing "official" narrative about sexuality tended to make sure that sexual experimentation nonetheless retained some connection to an idea of responsibility for one's actions.

Again, the connection between hooking up and date rape fits the template of drinking. Hook-up culture is in some ways less hypocritical than traditional dating, and, inasmuch as female sexual aggressiveness is encouraged, it is in principle more equal. (The question of whether it is in fact more equal is obviously up for debate.) However, as Seaman eloquently puts it, there have also been costs:

The culture we live in has given the current generation unprecedented permission to test and talk about their sexuality. Colleges have come to feel obliged largely for their own protection to provide graphic lectures on safe sex practices, hand out free condoms and dental dams in their health centers, and provide other clinical supports that amount to an elaborate safety net for those who fall victim to the physical risks inherent in sexual experimentation. But in doing so, they may also be granting their students a kind of tacit permission to test the limits of their own sexuality and endorsing what has become a tyranny of the majority that all but demands students to become sexually active, in some cases before they are psychologically ready.

The logic of this paragraph is pretty clear. First, our students' sexual behavior can't be separated from the pornification of everyday life. (As I write, the current Savage Love column explores the pressing question of whether homemade sex tapes made by two 14-year-olds constitute child pornography.) In a second move, colleges have to respond to their students' sexual behavior, to prevent lawsuits. But in a third move, the discourse around student sexual health further incites and legitimates, and, even seems to mandate, sexual play. And because the reigning American fantasy about college life is that it is a time of maximal freedom, students gravitate toward a model of sexual experimentation that, at least initially, seems more free: As "one male Ivy League junior" affirmed, "It's easier to go out and get fucked up and hook up than be sober and ask a girl on a date and get nothing for it".

What this student's lofty eloquence brings to the fore is perhaps the central motif of Seaman's book: ease and its discontents. Sex is easier, but also more fraught with uncertainty. Drinking is nominally harder, but in fact it's far easier to drink oneself into the hospital. Colleges are far more prepared now to deal with mental illness, but this frequently leads to overhasty interventions or to a black market in psychotropic drugs. Diversity tends to be managed by spinning off more and more narrowly tailored services and affinity deanships, but little is done to make sure that students from various affinity groups come together. The chapter on diversity is dismaying, as the students who are passionately involved in diversity-related events quickly realize that those events are usually populated by the same students. Grade inflation is both a cause and consequence of the tendency to treat a college diploma as just a piece of paper. (As Chester says in Lord Jim, "What's all the to-do about? A bit of ass's skin. That never yet made a man.")

Seaman argues that what underlies many of these concerns -- and I've only highlighted a few here -- is the retreat of the faculty and their replacement by student affairs/"Res Life" professionals. Older faculty can still remember the camaraderie that emerged from having an occasional beer with students, and those of us who were students more recently can doubtless remember the excited feeling of having arrived that accompanied an invitation to a professor's party. Having students over for a drink now will get you sued, unless you check IDs religiously and provide breathalyzers or taxi rides home. Faculty once played leading roles in extracurricular affairs, from going to athletic events or sponsoring clubs in areas of their interest. That happens less today, Seaman argues, than one might expect.

The pressure to publish, which now reaches much farther down the academic system than it once did, means that faculty members, especially junior faculty, have less time to engage deeply with student life. Formal incentives for faculty are all on the side of research, and to a certain extent classroom teaching -- extracurricular mentoring can easily take a back seat. As the university has grown more complex, in part as a consequence of the massive infusion of federal money and the various compliance requirements it entails, a new class of managers -- student affairs professionals -- has emerged, and the faculty have, by and large, deferred to their expertise.

As Seaman puts it, "With titles like orientation director, student activities technology coordinator, and alcohol education director, they are the den mothers, advisors, impresarios, booking agents, counselors, prosecutors, and cheerleaders; they are the ubiquitous adult face of residential college today". Let's be clear: Student affairs professionals play an important role in modern universities, and it's naïve to pretend otherwise. But Seaman's last clause registers an important lament: outside the classroom, if a student encounters an adult, it is far likelier to be a student affairs professional than a faculty member. If faculty members want students to take the life of the mind more seriously, then they need to do so beyond the classroom, but still on campus. It needs to be visible to students. Otherwise, as Binge makes clear, college life devolves into just so much beer and circus.

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