Barrett Seaman, a longstanding journalist for Time Magazine with a fantastic name for the press, became a trustee of Hamilton College, his alma mater, in 1989. Hamilton College is a strong liberal arts institution with a storied history in upstate New York. When Time Warner merged, Seaman took an early retirement and started investigating college life. He began by living for two weeks with students and the experience tickled his reporter’s instincts. Seaman followed that up with a systematic investigation of “traditional” higher education by living and learning at eleven other institutions: Berkeley, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Indiana-Bloomington, McGill, Middlebury, Pomona, Stanford, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The fruit of his labors is Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess – or What Your College Student Won’t Tell You (Wiley & Sons, 2005).
Just as you cannot judge a book by its cover, do not judge Binge by its title. My instinct is that there was a battle with the team in marketing to spice things up since there is little salacious in the text. For more descriptive accounts of sex on campus, look to Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons. Here, instead, is an informed and intelligent upper-middle class man re-examining college life from two perspectives: his own undergraduate years and that of a middlebrow journalist.
The resulting book is neither an ethnography (My Freshman Year by Rebecca Nathan), nor a systematic review, but rather an account of how Seaman reconciles his observations of student life and work at these elite institutions with his own expectations, fears and hopes. His themes: hooking up, alcohol, diversity, sports, drugs, date rape and Greek life, reflect a narrow slice of what higher education is all about. Learning, research, science and service learning are absent, as is a meaningful examination of technology beyond social life. In fact, the focus on campus life significantly distorts a more complete or thoughtful understanding.
Shortcomings notwithstanding, Seaman’s perspective can be refreshing. His comments about agency and authority are spot on. The title of his chapter on residence life and student affairs, “Who is in charge?” succinctly captures the challenges of engaging narcissistic college students while providing robust support and necessary structure. He sees the protective culture of higher education as enabling immature behavior, yet also notes how certain kinds of restraints are necessary.
Perhaps underlying the challenge of Seaman’s book is that implicit in his quest is some sort of recommendation, realization or next step. If students are binging, shouldn’t someone stop them? If students are disconnected and living a life of excess, shouldn’t they be connected? And their lifestyles trimmed?
Through his travels, conversations and research, Seaman realizes – whether he realizes it or not – that these college students are people. Smart people, perhaps, but still just people – young men and women trying to figure who they are, what they need, and how best to make it happen. And the elite colleges he visits are meeting these students needs and hopes relatively well. That is an important finding, relatively reassuring but not at all earth-shaking when it comes to selling books.