Formal Book Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

From time to time I write formal book reviews on works I particularly like. Previous formal book reviews have been on affirmative action, national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, atheism, and the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace. This review is on I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, an entertaining and thoroughly researched take on a bright, rural, innocent college freshman adapting to campus life. Thanks to Jesse Berrett for reading a draft of this.

It is painful to read about a bright young mind destroyed by violence, insane parents, or any other of society’s corruptive influences. We try hard to identify gifted youth and steer them toward pure brands of life which can incite their intellect to invent and change and publish without distraction. We have magnate schools, MacArthur Fellowships, centers for gifted children. Anything that staves off vices which make the gifted regress to simply average out of pure self-consciousness. Many would place America’s top-notch universities in the same boat: beautiful, ensconced campuses attracting the brightest minds from all over the world, devoted to the joint pursuit of ideas. This vision, Tom Wolfe shows in his newest novel, is grossly inaccurate.

His protagonist Charlotte Simmons is a brilliant high school student. She wins all the academic awards, delivers the valedictorian address, and is repeatedly told that she will shape the future we all live in. Moreover, she’s drop dead gorgeous. Charlotte, though, is not an east-coast boarding school student. Her lower-class family hails from a small town in North Carolina where the Southern accent rides high and cursing / drinking / sex are absent from an adolescent’s reality. Money is tight, clothes and make-up sparse. Charlotte is, in short, the sole pride of this small mountain town, and so receives a full scholarship to attend among the most prestigious universities in the land: Dupont. Some say Wolfe modeled Dupont on Duke University, which is probably an accurate guess, as Charlotte also considered Yale and Harvard. Dupont attracts the smartest and richest students, which means mostly white, attractive, upper-class students who studied at elite private high schools. When Charlotte arrives at Dupont for real academic challenges and "the life of the mind" as she puts it, she instead finds a stuck-up roommate, co-ed bathrooms, and endless alcohol and casual sex. The culture shock is overwhelming for Charlotte. Not just the blatant displays of wealth and SAT-tutored perfect white kids, but the anti-intellectual current that runs contrary to the brand name "Dupont". Sex, kegs, and jocks trump academic achievement at every turn.

Innocent Charlotte grapples with the competing tugs of mind and body: her quest for serious intellectual pursuit and her stated commitment not to drink or have sex, on the one hand, and her hormonal urge to do just that, on the other. This tension drives the narrative, as we see Charlotte creep, and creep, and creep. It starts with going to a frat party. Then a frat party where she sips a drink. Then a frat party where she sips a drink and dances with a basketball player who seeks out "fresh meat". Then a frat party where she sips a drink and dances with a guy and follows the guy to a room, only to then realize a room in a frat house with drunk college students means a room for sex. "I want some ass! I need some ass! Anybody know where’s some ass?" one man yells at the party. As she progresses up – or down? – the ladder, I’m torn. I don’t want her to become as dirtied as the alcoholic jocks or materialistic bitches (and "bitches" is truly the most accurate term for these designer outfit girls who live in her dorm), but I also don’t want her to sit in her dorm room all day in miserable isolation.

Charlotte’s good looks, brains, and virgin-status overwhelm the jock social stars. She accepts an invitation to go to the winter formal in Washington D.C. with the most popular senior basketball player on campus. Like in all her social activity, she does so with deep reservations, but a quiet sense of curiosity and secret urge for physical closeness precludes her from declining altogether. With her willpower eroded from the immense peer pressure to drink before the dance, Charlotte gets trashed the night of the formal. Again, depending on how you look at it, her drunkenness is either the nadir of her existence at Dupont – a prodigy converted to a wasted slut – or a sign that she’s finally broken out of her mountain-time shell and learned how to have fun and "live a little". That night, her date, Hoyt, brings her back to the hotel room and they have sex. In the throes of action Charlotte only said, "I’m not sure about this." Hoyt goes ahead anyway and once finished ignores Charlotte for the rest of the night and rest of the year. He got what he wanted. The de-virginizing of Charlotte represents the climax of the night and of the novel. She is scarred for months, enters a deep depression, and her formerly stellar grades tank.

Charlotte’s negotiation with all-hedonism, all-the-time college life is gripping and we get anxious when we leave her for too long, but there are several side plots which are equally demonstrative of Wolfe’s solid grasp of his setting.

The dominance of athletics is the primary one, a force which invades Dupont like it invades many other universities (Duke lacrosse, anyone?). The jocks are under qualified, secluded, and shepherded through special classes, but still manage to run the social life. The basketball coach demands nearly a full time commitment to the team and dissuades players from taking any class from a professor not cleared by the athletic department as being easy on athletes. At Charlotte’s encouragement, basketball player Jojo decides he’s suffocated genuine intellectual interests long enough and signs up for a philosophy class. He is sharply reprimanded by his coach who makes a mockery of him in front of the team ("Fucking idiot! A moron! An imbecile! You simpleminded shit! Socrates!" the coach says). Screwing prostitutes, on the other hand, is more in tune. Their games are broadcast on ESPN, so when the players go on road trips women show up at their hotel room unsolicited. The coaches endorse the surprise sex as de-stressing. Elsewhere on campus, a professor not cleared by the athletic department reviews a paper submitted by a basketball player and deems it plagiarism. And of course it was. A basketball "tutor" – a smart nerd named Adam – was asked to write the player’s entire 10 page paper.

Despite the professor’s commitment to make an example out of the plagiarism case – about an athletic department gone too far, about university life here and elsewhere being hijacked by greed and alcohol and sex – he runs into staunch opposition….From the President of the University! The President involves himself in the case to protect the basketball team, a shocking but realistic portrayal of the influence athletes and their sponsors command on campuses. Wolfe misses an opportunity here to provide the more complicated explanation – beyond, say, the President’s desire for high quality sports teams – for why Dupont and others must kiss the asses of athletes. Indeed, it would have provided good fodder for Wolfe’s effort to de-romanticize higher education in America: universities are corporations which need revenue to balance expenses. And jocks, no matter how inept in the classroom, often earn more money in the real world than their nerdy counterparts, and therefore give more to their alma mater i n appreciation for all those keg parties. Also, when sports team do well, alumni donations go up. Mr. Quat, the professor battling for discipline measures against the plagiarist, notes the "corruption of the scholarly ideal" and worries that he may be alone in pursuing the "mission of a university." But the Mr. Quats forget that the mission of a university has evolved – as it must – to a 21st century reality, where prestigious colleges are luxury brands whose primary constituents are far away from the undergraduate, where students’ drive come less from within and more from external factors, where pornography’s easy availability is creating a new sexual revolution but of a darker, more private kind disgustingly unfavorable to those uninitiated in MTV and strip clubs and house parties.

The one redeeming quality I see in Charlotte attending a place like Dupont is her developing new kinds of social skills. Exceptionally smart people probably need to learn how to interact with less gifted. Dupont exposes Charlotte to a broader range of beliefs and psychological quirks which will doubtless help her in the future. I’m not sure, though, whether this plus makes up for the sheer misery she endures her first year at Dupont. Wolfe is making a smart point here: Charlotte chose Dupont because it’s the most prestigious. But real choice exists and "fit," as so many college counselors will tell you, is important. If you don’t want to see the rift-raft of athletes and stuck-up preppiness, all-star students should go to Swarthmore or Sarah Lawrence, not Amherst, or the University of Chicago, not Princeton. Some schools have a reputation for harboring adventurous minds while shielding them from the polluted seas of alcohol and fuck-buddies. What "fit" really means is "fitting in" – being who you are without being sniggered at. For parents, this trade-off is appalling. Why should one’s college decision be premised on where the student can fit in and why should that fit live on extremes (fanatically academic or athlete-driven)? Why can’t a student choose a college based on the climate, departmental strengths, quality of the living quarters? Those criteria are fine, if you accept the probably antiquated notion that in a large university like Dupont everyone can find their own niche, their own friends, and live a happy, undisturbed life for four years. Instead, Wolfe nicely captures how hierarchical campus life is. Even nerds who vow never to attend a frat party only last so long. In the end, it’s a small world, and peer pressure wins.

When you’re finished with the book, a central question is the state of Charlotte Simmons in the last few pages. It’s March Madness and Charlotte is sitting in the stands at a basketball game cheering along her boyfriend and star player Jojo. She has emerged successfully from her depression, regained some self-confidence, and re-focused on academics. She helped her friend Adam emerge from his own depression and even motivated her jock boyfriend to embrace academic life. Charlotte may be happy, but Wolfe doesn’t make it that simple. At the basketball game one of Charlotte’s early champions – a neuroscience professor – gives only an unfriendly nod to his student now ensconced in normal university life, his student who managed to get a C- in his class — a grade nearly unthinkable for her at the start of the year. Charlotte doesn’t let this shake her up. She just focuses on the game: "Ohmygod…She clicked on the appropriate face just like that. Since the crowd had now launched into rhythmic clapping to the one beat cadence of Go go Jojo, Charlotte figured she had better join in, too."

Ah, finally, Charlotte learns how to fit in, how to join in, and be happy. Ohmygod, this is so awesome!! Finally, Charlotte can sit back and bask in the glory of her exploits: a popular, famous basketball player. The novel ends here. We’ll never know what lasting effect Dupont has on Charlotte, whether she can ever regain the unwavering passion for intellectual life she carried before entering university. No one knows, really. No one knows how many people have quite understandably tried and failed to live up to the wise words, "It’s no measure of health being well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

How disturbed all this makes you feel depends on how realistic you think Wolfe is being, and whether Charlotte and college life is a microcosm for contemporary culture. I believe in this novel Wolfe follows in his realist tradition, constructing a character that’s not an abstract synthetic of all of culture’s woes, but rather the accumulated reportage of real college life. It coheres into an impressive portrait that’s entertaining and exhausting. But let’s not overstate Wolfe’s aims. College life is a fascinating time in someone’s life. It deserves to be scrutinized. Yet it’s not life. It’s not America. It’s its own beast increasingly disconnected from the real world. And I trust girls as smart as Charlotte Simmons will figure this out, grab their degrees, and be the first to walk off the campus after graduation.

15 Responses to Formal Book Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

  1. Jason says:

    Great review Ben.

    We spoke about this novel briefly over the phone, and seeing how I am about to attend a university some call a “football factory” I have my own thoughts to add.

    First off, The University experience is ultimately what you make of it. Are many campuses (including The University of Miami) loaded with athletes who don’t deserve to be there by academic ability? Sure.

    Does that have to affect those who gain entrance based on their grades? I don’t think so. I could care less if some football player was admitted for his athletic prowess; I got in by working my way up to a 3.5 GPA and wrote one kick ass essay, and that’s all that matters.

    Anymore, athletes who are little more than glorified thugs are embarassing their respective institutions beyond belief. The Miami Hurricanes were at one point so corrupt people made the joke of athletic recruitment occuring at Florida State Pennitentiary. It took them years to shake that reputation, and it’s still an ongoing process. But I’m not an athlete, and I could care less where they come from.

    (Actually, it’s more a matter of a select few who cause trouble. To deem all athletes as “thugs” is wrong and shouldn’t be done)

    Let’s face it: many college athletes come from neighborhoods many of us wouldn’t even drive through in broad daylight. For every decent guy like former USC star Matt Leinart there are many kids right out of the ghetto who have known nothing else but violence their whole lives. If it weren’t for their athletic abilities they’d be in jail– and many end up there eventually. My motto is to just let nature take its course and focus on myself. Karma takes care of the universe in the end.

    I choose Miami over Temple University in Philadelphia and The Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC b/c of its well-regarded Public Relations program, as well as the pull that the name has in the Miami area. The campus was beautiful, and the array of services offered, both recreational and career-oriented, were outstanding. Perhaps my decisions were a bit more mature, a bit more streamlined to my career plans more so than wishing to plunge into an elite party school.

    And yeah, the notion of Miami in the winter didn’t hurt ;-)

    Secondly, I think one can avoid the less intellectually inclined by simply being true to themselves…though as a transfer student and a twenty year old, I may represent a different mindset than a freshman right out of high school. I learned a couple life lessons before starting the big university life, and I believe I am truly better for it.

    Tom Wolfe got a lot of it right, however, and these issues will ultimately have to be dealt with on a more widespread level. The main issue I see at the moment is that athletes are involved in a vast majority of sexual assault cases on campus, often against women who would have no chance in hell to fend them off. Now, THAT is something that has to be dealt with– it’s nearly the equivalent of letting a defrocked Catholic priest into a room full of Spongebob watching children. Lord help them if one of those girls is packing heat and shoots a star quarterback between the eyes, or if a given athlete has a hit put on him by a gang in the area (a real possibility if a white athlete were to rape a black girl).

    I’m currently finishing up a short story about a series of rapes on a college campus, followed by murder, and a revelation of a past incident that ties it all together; though not in any way you’d expect. In fact, it’s so bizarre that either The Atlantic will grant me some prize based on origniality or throw it in the garbage for being “trashy”.

    Only one way to find out!

  2. What a great review — I remember you talking about this book the other week; now I’ve ordered it from Amazon.

    I think the tension between retaining the values I grew up with on one hand, and having an “open mind” ready to explore the world on the other, has played a rather defining role in shaping my life over the past few years. This will be my first time reading a novel by Tom Wolfe, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he puts it all together.

  3. Craig says:

    Thank you Ben. I had been meaning to read I am Charlotte Simmons and ordered it from Amazon after reading your review.

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    At the risk of seeming like an idiot because I haven’t actually read the book….

    Wolfe (who is after all a tremendously talented author if a bit of a huckster…for those who are interested, I’ll post an anecdote about the time I met Ken Kesey and what he thought of Tom Wolfe because of “The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test”) gets things right in a broad sense.

    College in America is a disorienting and different place, especially at elite educational institutions.

    I was in a similar position; while I wasn’t a small-town boy, I went to Stanford when I was 15, and was thus considerably more sheltered than many of my classmates.

    Nonetheless, sheltered doesn’t mean stupid–I was able to observe the college experience quite closely, and while my freshman year was 1990-1991, I don’t think things have changed that much since then. After all, even then we had email, MMORPGS, and students starting companies.

    Especially at a place like Stanford, your freshman year is a time of adjustment. Your past is largely irrelevant, giving you a chance to re-invent yourself. Drugs, alcohol, and sex are more freely available, and there’s no parents around to police you. You’re spending more time with your peers than ever before, now that you’re actually living with them.

    But one thing that you haven’t mentioned, that I think is crucial, is that when you go to a place like Stanford, 99% of the students were in the top 1% of their high schools. They were used to being the best and the brightest. But the harsh fact is that fully 50% of those people will (by definition) be average or below average compared to their peers.

    If your identity is tied up in being an academic superstar, capable of handling any schoolwork with ease, suddenly competing against people who are your equals or even superiors can be a terrifying thing.

    During my freshman year, for example, I got a B+, a horrifying experience for a fellow who hadn’t gotten anything less than an A since the 6th grade. And I was lucky.

    Many people who planned to become doctors or engineers ran into the buzzsaw that is collegiate-level math and science.

    I got a 70/100 on my physics final, and that put me as one of the top 3 in the class, with an A+.

    My roommate, a smart fellow who is a very successful engineer today, got a 17–when do you think the last time was that he got a score like that?

    All of these factors combine to seriously unhinge many students. The first time our dorm held a progressive (a party where every room on a floor serves a different alcoholic beverage, and the object is to sample them all), afterwards, the bathrooms were filled with vomiting National Merit Scholars and valedictorians.

    I also remember the first time I was awakened on a Sunday morning by a call from my parents, and having to stifle a yelp of surprise when I saw a random female dormmate in my roommate’s bed (a one-night hookup fueled by alcohol…she later spent most of the year dating one of the resident assistants from a neighboring dormitory).

    And there were certainly cautionary tales, like the fellow (now a successful coach) who grew drugs in their dorm room, or the friend (now a succesful hedge fund investor) who took to drinking Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle, or the other friend (now a respected physician and researcher) who had to be driven to the hospital for severe alcohol poisoning. Funny story that–that happened on Parents’ Weekend, and I had to explain that he must have gotten a stomach flu. That was after I had to loudly jangle my keys in the door to warn my roommate and his girlfriend to get some clothes on when my parents wanted to see my room–no cell phones back then to text message a warning!

    The conclusion from all this is that for coddled youth, college is dangerous because it provides so much more choice than their prior life. Some of those choices are harmful, and some no doubt suffer greatly.

    But that’s called growing up. At some point in your life, you need to make your own decisions, which means making your own mistakes as well.

    I never got drunk, took drugs, or had sex with random women under the influence when I was in college. I found college a wonderful, perspective-expanding place, where I had tons of fun, got to meet lots of people who are still close friends today, yet learned a tremendous amount from my professors and peers.

    And as you noticed from the brief bios interspersed with my war stories, even those who made their fair share of bad decisions turned out all right too.

    Being a freshman is a powerful experience, but eventually you find yourself as a sophomore–older, wiser, and better for the experience.

    But there really is nothing like that freshman year, and there’s a reason most people treasure that time in their lives. It’s your first chance to stand on your own, and you always remember that, even if you skin your knees.

    P.S. As promised, here is my Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe story.

    When I was a sophomore, the late great Ken Kesey (the Merry Prankster, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, and general literary legend) came to speak at my dorm. He was a fantastic and inspirational speaker, and I was awed, especially as an aspiring writer.

    Afterwards, various members of the dorm took Ken out to dinner, and thanks to a friend (she was dating the RA who had arranged the visit, though today she is married to my son’s godfather…funny how life works), I was invited along.

    What a night! Ken was a truly sparkling conversationalist, though I think he probably always remembered me as the kid who didn’t drink mai tais with him (even when under peer pressure from a celebrity personal humor, I refused to compromise my stance on alcohol…I was probably a little too rigid, but what’s done is done).

    We learned many things that night, including Ken’s secret for being so comfortable at speaking engagements (he habitually sipped a combination of orange juice, vodka, and LSD). At one point, the talk turned to Tom Wolfe.

    “Ah,” said Ken, “There’s an old saying that applies here. Shit floats, and cream rises. The trick is telling the difference. Jack Kerouac: cream rises. Tom Wolfe: shit floats.”

    I guess ol’ Ken wasn’t a fan of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test!”

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Chris:

    1. You say you had email in ’90-’91, but the web wasn’t nearly as pervasive then. I doubt college life was as pornography flooded as it is now. Did IM and text messaging and Facebook and endless digital photos have equilvalents when you were in college? I think a lot has changed, and all these technologies have changed behavior.

    2. You say 50% of the students are now average, even though 99% were in top 1% of high school class. But didn’t some 80% of last year’s graduating Harvard class graduate with honors? Was grade inflation prevelant in the early 90′s?

    3. I think your willpower to resist alcohol and drugs throughout four years in college is truly an anomoly. Charlotte — and many like her — succumb. As you say, that’s why it can be dangerous.

    4. I would strongly challenge the notion of “that’s what’s called growing up.” The most depressing part of the nomenclature around adolescence and college life is this bizarre connection between “experimentation” / “learning from your mistakes” and binge drinking, reckless sex, and drug use.

  6. Tim Taylor says:

    Ben,

    I can’t quite tell, would you recommend that I read it?

    TT

  7. Chris Yeh says:

    BEN: 1. You say you had email in ’90-’91, but the web wasn’t nearly as pervasive then. I doubt college life was as pornography flooded as it is now. Did IM and text messaging and Facebook and endless digital photos have equilvalents when you were in college? I think a lot has changed, and all these technologies have changed behavior.

    Believe me, there was plenty of pornography around, even if it wasn’t as sophisticated as today’s offerings. While we might have ridden to class on dinosaurs and rubbed sticks together to start fires, even then the Internets was a huge repository of porn. It’s just that back then all the frat boys had to visit alt.binaries instead of just googling their favorite perversion.

    Of course, back then, porn stars didn’t appear on mainstream talk shows and publications, but it’s a difference of degree, especially at the college level.

    BEN: 2. You say 50% of the students are now average, even though 99% were in top 1% of high school class. But didn’t some 80% of last year’s graduating Harvard class graduate with honors? Was grade inflation prevelant in the early 90′s?

    Grade inflation is one of those things which comes and goes….when it gets really bad, there’s a crackdown, but then it tends to recur because it is a tragedy of the commons-type situation.

    But grade inflation doesn’t change my point–a person can lie to their parents and claim that they’re doing well with a B average, but they can’t lie to themselves. Everyone knows whether or not they’re one of the stars.

    Also, many schools confuse the issue with the concept of “honors” and “distinction.” At Stanford, “honors” simply signifies the completion of an honors thesis, regardless of grades, while distinction is awarded to a fixed percentage of the class (which is much lower than 50%). For example, I was the only member of my graduating class in my major (Product Design Engineering) to graduate with distinction in that major (though I contend that such a distinction is relatively meaningless in a major in which creative talent should be more important than grades–I may have been the “top” graduate in that sense, but I definitely did not consider myself one of the top designers in my class).

    BEN: 3. I think your willpower to resist alcohol and drugs throughout four years in college is truly an anomoly. Charlotte — and many like her — succumb. As you say, that’s why it can be dangerous.

    Ah, but that’s my point. Free will requires that there be a choice. And as I point out, even the people I knew who got in some trouble ended up turning out just fine.

    That being said, I’ll discuss this issue further one because I agree with you in several respects.

    BEN: 4. I would strongly challenge the notion of “that’s what’s called growing up.” The most depressing part of the nomenclature around adolescence and college life is this bizarre connection between “experimentation” / “learning from your mistakes” and binge drinking, reckless sex, and drug use.

    I do not condone binge drinking, reckless sex, or drug use. I think that those activities are stupid and harmful, and I would prefer if college students (especially my own children, when they reach that age) avoided them entirely.

    But the definition of adulthood is that you have the right and opportunity to make your own decisions. Providing an environment in which it is impossible to make harmful mistakes is both impossible and infantilizing.

    Now, as I mentioned earlier, I’m in full agreement that a culture that encourages binge drinking, reckless sex, and drug use is wrong, and should be attacked. My statement that having the opportunity to make your own mistakes is part of growing up doesn’t change that. I have similar feelings about legal activities such as smoking. I think smoking is a filthy habit that I despise. I applaud the efforts by public health departments to stigmatize it, and by government to tax it. And boring old public service announcements have helped drive down smoking rates considerably. But if an adult decides to smoke, and does so in the privacy of her home where her secondhand smoke can’t harm any unwilling victims, that’s her right.

    As a side note, I would also like to add a defense of the college athletic system, at least as it is practiced at Stanford.

    Unlike many other schools, Stanford athletes are subject to the same admissions policies as anyone else–there are no “free passes” that the athletic department can hand out to top recruits. You can see this policy at work in areas such as the men’s basketball program, where despite its status as a perennial NCAA tournament participant and top program, Stanford still can’t come close to matching the athleticism and talent of Pac-10 competitors such as UCLA, Arizona, and Washington. The only McDonald’s All-Americans we get are the oddballs who are also bookish and intellectual, like former lottery pick Josh Childress, who acts as a technology consultant to his Atlanta Hawks teammates.

    All of the athletes I knew during my time at Stanford (and I knew a lot of them, including many friends who won national championships during our years there) were subject to the same rigors of academic life as the rest of us. It was actually harder for them, since they had to balance their schoolwork with hefty practice schedules.

    The day after his team won the national championship in water polo, my friend Brian was there with me in the machine shop, bleary-eyed, but busy milling his latest design project.

    My roommate Will was Pac-10 golfer of the year when Stanford won the championship the year *before* Tiger Woods arrived, and he spent far more time studying than I.

    Larry Bercutt, who was one of my classmates and fellow English majors, was the starting goalkeeper for the NCAA championship water polo team, a double major in English and Biology, and had a 3.95 GPA, which was higher than mine.

    These people truly lived up to their title of “student athlete” and don’t deserve to be lumped into the same category as Duke lacrosse players or University of Miami football players, even by a writer as talented as Tom Wolfe.

  8. Chris Yeh says:

    Final side comment:

    Ben, in reading your comment on Brad’s blog, I think it is important to reiterate that I can only speak for the college experience at Stanford, which is in no way, shape, or form, a party school like USC, Arizona State, Miami, etc.

    The parent who forks over $40K a year to send their child to one of those places and expects them to focus on schoolwork is sadly naive or deceived.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Chris –

    The Stanford athletic department should be applauded, but it must be lonely for them on that side of the fence. For most high performing athletic departments that are also outstanding academic schools (Duke, for example, or even top liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Williams) it’s the opposite. Maybe one reason Stanford can do this is because of the Arrigila family which bankrolls the entire effort.

    Do you support making smoking in restaurants illegal? If you support making it illegal because of the externalities on other patrons, are there any similarities to dorm life?

    I guess I come at the grade inflation / “i know I’m not a star” issue slightly differently. Your theory works on an intensely comparative basis. I suppose at the very top ranks the #3 guy in the class is peering over the shoulder of the #2 guy, seeing what grade he got on the paper. But for the rest of us, absolute trumps. Hey — a B+ is a good grade, especially when I call home and tell Grandma, or, more important, when I tell the employer.

    A final, minor point: both you and Ramit have hit on USC in past comments, and here you lump USC with Arizona State and Miami. That’s not fair. USC is very good academic school whose admissions standards are among the most selective in the country. The most important thing for people who graduated from college more than five years ago to do is acknowledge that schools change and prestige changes, and that a casual glance at U.S. News doesn’t change much!

  10. Chris Yeh says:

    Ben,

    I think that schools that devote themselves to both academics and athletics need to look in the mirror and decide which is most important.

    As we’ve seen in the case of the Duke lacrosse team, creating a segregated world for athletes can breed resentment and other issues (even assuming that the team members are innocent of the alleged crimes).

    I do support the ability of government to ban smoking in restaurants because 1) it reflects the will of the people, and 2) secondhand smoke is noxious at best, and is probably harmful to innocent bystanders.

    This differs from banning party school behavior, which doesn’t have secondhand effects (except when the marijuana smoke is exceptionally thick).

    I wasn’t forced to drink, take drugs, or have sex, and I suspect that’s true of most people. They chose to take those actions on their own.

    On grade inflation, my point was simply that people who are used to viewing themselves as the best have a major adjustment to make. Even if they settle down happily with an inflated B or B+ average, the fact is that they have to find a new identity for themselves–especially since the most competitive positions at leading companies, consultancies, and investment banks require exceptional performance. GE, McKinsey, and Goldman Sachs know exactly what a GPA at a particular college really means, and a comfortable B+ ain’t going to cut it with them.

    Finally, it may very well be that I am unfair to USC. Schools change over time. Prior to World War 2, Stanford was the USC of Northern California, a pleasant place for scions of old money to earn their degrees. It was the post-war technology boom (funded by government research grants), followed by the growth of Silicon Valley that made Stanford what it is today.

    I found this article evaluating USC’s progress relative to 1990, when I was a freshman:

    http://www.usc.edu/president/speeches/1999/faculty_address.html

    “Last year we had over 21,000 applicants for 2,800 freshman positions, compared to only 12,000 applicants in 1990 — an increase of 86 percent. The average SAT score for this year’s entering freshman class is 1243 compared with 1083 in 1990. Part of that gain is illusory because there was a “re–centering” of SAT scores in 1997. But even taking recentering into account, ours is one of the largest gains in SAT scores of any major university in the United States.

    The average GPA for our entering freshman class this year is 3.7, compared with 3.4 in 1990. Most of our freshmen now come from the upper 10 percent of their high school class, while in 1990 most of them came from the upper half of their high school class.

    We have 136 National Merit Scholars in this fall’s freshman class. For the first time in our history we are among the top 10 colleges and universities in the country in terms of enrollment of National Merit Scholars, and among the top three in California (along with Berkeley and Stanford). In 1990 we enrolled 30 National Merit Scholars in our freshman class, which means we have experienced an increase in this dimension of 350 percent in just eight years.”

    That, plus USC isn’t even named in Playboy’s top 25 party schools anymore. Perhaps the University of Second Choice has grown up after all. I retract my criticisms of SC.

    That being said, their band sucks, and so does their fight song!

  11. MT says:

    I suggest you read the book again in a decade or two. Or both. I can’t imagine what I would have made of it before I went to college. It strikes me now as profoundly and shamingly wise.

  12. Lindsay says:

    I finally got around to reading this one. When you called me Charlotte Simmons, I had to investigate myself to see how we are so similar.

    A few times during the novel, I would reread sentences with my mouth gaped open- wondering whether Tom Wolfe had been writing MY story rather than Charlotte’s.

    At other times, I saw some of Charlotte’s distinguishing characteristics- most notably her incredible naivety. Her reactions to coed bathrooms and Hoyt taking her to his room were pretty immature and far-fetched in our world of promiscuous teenagers. Also, I was a little disappointed in the novel’s conclusion. I agree with Tom Wolfe’s message that Charlotte just wanted to “fit in”; however, I was disappointed with her decision to choose fame and social status over intelligence.

    Thanks for a great book recommendation!

  13. Ben Casnocha says:

    I’m glad you got to it. I, too, was disappointed in her decision to choose status, but over what I’m not sure. By choosing to fuck the popular jock and go to frat parties does she lose intelligence? Probably not, though you could argue she’s not putting all her intellectual wherewithal to full use. The long term effect of her college experience remains to be seen.

    My thought remains that someone as naïve as Charlotte probably couldn’t exist in today’s pornified internet age, but there are probably many people who contain slivers of her being (you, maybe, me, maybe).

  14. Colin says:

    Ben -

    Great review. This book had a huge effect on me when I read it in 05. I did not take away the “fit” angle for choosing universities. Good insight.

    I do want to point out that you inaccurately characterized Hoyt, the guy who de-virginized Charlotte, as a basketball player. He is actually a mere frat boy. I remember because I was also a frat boy and Wolfe’s depiction of 21st century Greek Life was stinging and, unfortunately, accurate.

    Good review,
    Colin

  15. Colin says:

    After thoughts:

    I kept thinking about this review last night. I really like the observation that lots of smart kids get sidetracked from learning / pursuing excellence in favor of conforming. I was a real smart kid but got exposed and sucked into nonsense pretty early. I wish I hadn’t cared about what other people thought of me back then. I might be a lot further today.

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