Tom Wolfe’s warning

The North American novelist Tom Wolfe has ridiculed the superficiality of East Coast society in the United States and its obsession with getting its offspring into Ivy League universities without for a moment reflecting on what those universities might do to their sons and daughters.

A similar obsession about ‘getting in’ exists in Britain, where the equivalent ‘promised land’ is Oxbridge (or, to a lesser extent, the Russell Group universities).

‘I have never met a single parent – not one – who has ever shown the slightest curiosity about what happens to them once they get here or what they may have become by the time they graduate’, he recalls telling a group of seniors at Harvard, shortly after the publication of The bonfire of vanities in 1987.

Nearly two decades later he could still say he had ‘never heard a single parent speculate about what value might be added by those four undergraduate years, other than the bachelor’s degree itself, which is an essential punch on the ticket for starting off in any upscale [i.e. well-paid] career’. (Declining by degrees; higher education at risk, 2005)

Wolfe had illustrated the effects of the malaise at universities in his novel I am Charlotte Simmonds (2004) which paints a depressing picture of a student’s depraved and aimless life at an (imaginary) elite North American university.

The prevailing aspiration at most universities is to have a ‘good time’ and do just enough work to see themselves into a well-remunerated career. Without the countercultural support provided by family and friends, the typical university student satirised by Wolfe is likely to graduate emotionally scarred and ill-prepared to form a strong marriage, bring up children or offer selfless service to country and society.

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