I’ve been wanting to write about this past weekend’s riots in Keene, NH: I taught, after all, at Keene State College for a decade and lived near campus for most of that time. But everything I’ve imagined myself saying quickly devolved into a cranky rant, and the world doesn’t need more of those. Raising a fist at rioters doesn’t do anything productive; it only adds to the clamor and discord.
Drunken idiocy happens at all the colleges where I’ve taught: it’s not unique to Keene State. It’s true that Keene State has acquired (and, among some students, apparently relishes) a reputation for being a party school, and over the years the Pumpkin Festival has become an increasingly popular occasion for drunken partying and the reckless mayhem that ensues. But apart from timing, this year’s riot had nothing to do with the Keene Pumpkin Festival. Despite news headlines to the contrary, this weekend’s parties gone bad didn’t happen at the Pumpkin Festival; they simply happened during it.
There’s nothing that made this weekend’s events unique to Keene apart from an escalation in recent years in the number of revelers attracted to Keene State on a particular Saturday in October. The Pumpkin Festival wasn’t the reason for the riot, but it did serve as an excuse. There is, unfortunately, particular kind of college student—typically white suburban males, children of modest privilege with no real reason to take to the street in justified protest—who will take any excuse to over-imbibe in the name of “partying” and who quickly turn violent out of sheer boredom.
I say this not to defend Keene, its college, or the students at said college; I say this because what happened in Keene this weekend is indicative of a larger problem. It’s easy to peruse media reports of the Keene riots while politely shaking one’s head, quietly condemning those ill-behaved college kids who are nothing like me or my children. Make no mistake: what happened at Keene State could have happened at any college in any town. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s our own.
Let’s be frank, America: our college campuses have a drinking problem. Not all college students are violent, drunken vandals…but yes, all professors (and yes, all residents living near college campuses) can tell you horror stories of drunken, immature kids who frankly have no business being in college but were attracted to campus primarily because it’s a perfect venue for a four-year party.
We as a culture have come to see college as a right, not a privilege, and our campuses reflect that fact. For every student who goes to college out of a genuine desire to learn and grow, there are too many students who would be the first to tell you they don’t want to be there. These kids find themselves in college because they’ve been terrified into submission by teachers, parents, and guidance counselors who tell them they’ll never get a job without the piece of paper called a college degree: a piece of paper as essential today as a high school diploma was to my generation.
Is it any surprise that students who have no real interest in becoming scholars—students who have no qualms telling their professors point-blank that they don’t care about their classes—would entertain themselves with drunken mayhem? Why not? If college is merely an extension of high school—a place where you have no real choice but to show up for four years in order to get the necessary, job-granting certificate known as a college degree—why wouldn’t you kick back and party your time away?
I’m not sure that scaring students into college by telling them it’s the only way they’ll ever get a job is a wise tactic. A college degree isn’t a guarantee of employment; if a student doesn’t get anything out of the classes they don’t want to take, that piece of paper isn’t going to hold much power. But our culture sees college not just as a right but as a rite of passage. We somehow believe that spending four years on a college campus will turn an unfocused, under-motivated eighteen-year-old into a capable and qualified adult without fully considering how that happens. If drudging your way through a high school curriculum isn’t enough to make you employable, how will drudging your way through four years of college help matters much?
I don’t know how to solve the drinking problem on American college campuses: I suspect it reflects larger problems in a culture that worships alcohol as both an escape from worry and an excuse for nearly any sort of bad behavior. But I do have a modest proposal for the problem of boredom-inspired bad behavior on college campuses: parents, don’t send your eighteen-year-olds to college. Save for your children’s education, and then insist they take a year or two off—a gap year—to figure out what they want from that education.
As a college instructor I see a huge difference between the first-year students who come to college straight out of high school and the ones who have spent a year or two working, serving in the military, or otherwise engaging with the “real world” outside of college. Too many fresh-from-high-school students come to college with no real sense of what they want to attain from their studies. Instead, they’re in college because that’s what’s expected, that’s what their friends are doing, or that’s what mom and dad want.
This weekend’s riots in Keene suggest that college (like youth) is often wasted on the young. Older, more mature students are almost always more driven to learn. They’ve spent time working or traveling, they’ve lived on their own, and they’ve gotten some of their youthful hijinks out of their system. Older, more mature students have a better sense of what they want to do with their education and with their lives, and they realize that engaging in drunken mayhem doesn’t get them anywhere closer to their goals.
This post turned into exactly the kind of cranky rant I was trying to avoid. At least the photos, which come from the 2010 Pumpkin Festival, are a bit less crabby.