Sunday, I traveled to the University of Maryland in College Park and, with my son, went to hear Tom Friedman give a presentation. Sure, I knew that he was there to flog his new book and I also knew that, since I read his column regularly, I was pretty familiar with what he was going to say. But he was to be joined for a large part of the presentation by Shibley Telhami. Thus, the event promised to be somewhat more than the usual author-speak. And, since it was the last day of Passover, I could always conclude my trip with a pizza from Ledo's (the original, not one of the franchisee pretenders).
Something about the presentation troubled me. It had nothing to do with what Friedman or Telhami said or didn't say. It was the audience. There were few students there, either graduate or undergraduate. By and large, the members of the audience were old. And I don't mean Stuart Levine old. Just by a guess, I believe that well over a third, maybe more than half, of the audience was over 60.
I graduated from College Park in 1972. I won't lie and say that every student was an activist or actively concerned with the issues of the day, but I will tell you that had individuals with the reputation of Friedman and Telhami come to speak on campus, they would have attracted a huge crowd of students, both graduate and undergraduate. Yes, I know what you're thinking: My memory of an intellectually engaged student body is simply a variant on the same sort of nostalgia that my parents exhibited when told me that they had to walk six miles to school every day in blinding snowstorms and through deep snowdrifts. I don't think so.
Something has changed. There is none of that intellectual snap, crackle, and pop that was in the air when I was an undergraduate. (Ok, it's true that today my knees are the principal part of my being that snap, crackle, and pop on a regular basis and maybe my memories have become romanticized, but still.)
I recall reading about students who went to college after World War II on the GI Bill. They were significantly more focused and directed than the other students at the same time who came to college directly from high school. I believe that today's college students are much like that post-WWII generation than mine.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because we will likely turn out technically more proficient engineers, chemists, biologists, computer scientists, etc. It's bad because these students have somehow lost their youth.
At least the pizza was as exquisite as I remember it.
Apparently some schools, such as the University of Texas, have more traditional student bodies. See here.