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Cultural Studies; Or, The Perils Of Mislabeling Campus Problems

September 5, 2010, 2:16 pm

One of the things I have noticed, probably because I live with an anthropologist, is that academics tend to use the word “culture” to describe a variety of things that, actually, are not cultural at all. It is true that “culture” has a great many meanings, depending on the context in which it is being used, the historical period or thing that is being described, and the intellectual tradition (if any) that is being referenced: here are a few. For social scientists, most centrally anthropologists, “culture” is far more likely to invoke a set of usefully contentious questions and methodological choices than an answer to any given problem.

In a college or university setting, however, when someone starts talking about “culture” it is too frequently the end of the discussion, an explanation for why things must be as they are and/or a way of distancing from something nettlesome. You will most frequently hear the notion of culture being invoked by administrators and faculty when what is being addressed is a problem, or set of problems, that either no one wants to name or can name — at least, not without opening a can of worms that general consensus dictates ought not to be opened.
For example, my friend Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries, a dedicated muckraker of university athletic scandals and the lavishing of public dollars on stadiums and celebrity coaches, recently reprinted a letter from the New York Times about “the culture of athletics.” It was written by a Berkeley alum who is justifiably angry about a budget cutting climate in which academic staffing is dispensable, but the funding of Cal’s semi-professional athletic programs continues to “balloon.” He writes:
In my experience as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and as a high school teacher, I have seen how the culture of athletics promotes anti-intellectualism, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and bullying, and competition as opposed to collaboration. The athletic culture, which dismisses and demonizes opponents, most often acts in opposition to our other goals as an academic institution, not in concert with them.

I agree with the larger point about what ought to be the funding priority at universities: education. But I don’t think sports are inherently bad for students or for student life, nor are they a waste of time and money when they are prudently budgeted. As a former student-athlete myself, I think athletics, at their best, promote discipline, friendship, a sense of community and self-esteem. Developmentally, they have the potential to help young people learn to accept failure in a nation where failure (particularly in an educational context) is overly stigmatized. Furthermore, while athletic teams with bad-a$$ marquee players get the most ink, such behavior is hardly confined to athletes on any campus, large or small. Young people in groups egg each other on to actions that they would not perpetrate alone. Fearful of being labeled Debbie Downers, individuals fail to intervene when they know the group, or a popular member of the group, is being violent, foolish or destructive. Athletics is only one of many ways that groups of young people cohere and demand conformity on a campus.
Hence, the author’s invocation of “culture” to describe a set of malicious or destructive behaviors that vary dramatically in their incidence across gender and athletic specialties, and that are quite similar to behaviors exhibited by non-athletes, strikes me as wrong-headed and unhelpful. It unfairly stigmatizes athletes as bad people, when in fact the vast majority of undergraduate athletes — like the vast majority of their non-athlete peers — are good people who are occasionally prone to ill-considered actions. More importantly, the rubric of “culture” blurs questions of agency and responsibility in a way that makes a program of institutional reform, or the sensible re-integration of athletics into a university setting that prioritizes intellectual life, impossible.
If nothing but “culture” is at fault, to whom and to what do you turn for a solution?
Let’s not be entirely dim here: while we all know that jock-$niffing faculty, administrators and boosters demand, authorize and pay for the budget excesses in big-time college athletics, the “behaviors” being referenced (with the exception of the occasional high-profile coach being arrested on a DUI or being extorted for an impulsive, public game of hide the salami) are exclusively student behaviors. So when we talk about “culture” on campus we are both talking about students being out of control, and we are being deliberately mysterious as to the role of the adults in promoting and tolerating that. Why the mystery? Because the university is dis-identifying with those activities, whatever it might be doing to facilitate them, and obscuring its own possible moral or legal liability for not dealing with them. That’s why. So, to use another example, one great stumbling block to rationalizing tenure procedures across the university is not disciplinary differences, as you might imagine, but the invocation of “departmental cultures” that make each disciplinary entity mysteriously and necessarily unique from the others.
Let me give you another example which is at least as pressing a policy matter, and perhaps a less controversial one, than tenure. At Zenith, as at many schools, we have a big problem with various forms of extreme inebriation, which no one can pretend is related to our national athletic prominence. Students routinely end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning after weekend partying, as they do at other schools. Periodically, our very able Student Life professionals address this problem by revising the restrictions and penalties attached, not only to the possession and consumption of alcohol and drugs, but to the breaking of state and local laws that pertain to underage drinking. You can read them for yourself here. Furthermore, in part because of excessive drinking, we have a sex problem, which I would describe as a spectrum of unwanted intercourse along the lines of a Kinsey scale: 6 = unambiguous felony rape; 1 = being really impaired and having some spurious form of consent winkled out of you because you fear being called a c0cktea$e and/or you once “hooked up” with this same person (under our regulations 1 is still sexual assault.)
But in addition to sexual assault, drinking leads to a big, messy, dangerous and budget-sappingly expensive category of behavior on all campuses which is often mistakenly described as “campus culture.” I say expensive because, when I was working at Ben Franklin University twenty years ago, BFU was said to have budgeted $500K a year for what was generically called “frat damage.” But this too is a spectrum of behaviors dangerous to self and others that I would not call “culture,” but The
Doing Of Stupid Things. Teenagers are famous for Doing Stupid Things even when sober and living with one or more competent adults: dip into the field of popular psychological writing about parenting adolescents if you don’t believe me. But when they get to college, are living with each other, and drinking, these activities can often include one or more of the following: vandalism, hiring strippers, ending up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning, throwing up on people, theft, contracting STDs from willing sexual partners, driving into trees, breaking arms and legs, sending nude pictures to each other’s cell phones, and insisting that first-year students who have very little acquaintance with alcohol learn to drink like idiots too through drinking games and hazing practices.
A problem no one talks about — because it is more or less invisible damage except when someone flunks out — is that many students spend the time they could be studying or sleeping drunk, stoned, or recovering from being drunk or stoned. Five will get you ten that the “stress” we hear so much about nowadays is often intensified by the fact that students have less time to do their work because of the expansion of activities designed to “relieve stress.”
Now it sounds like I am blaming students, exactly what I warned against, right? Wrong. I blame us, because by grouping these activities under the rubric of “culture” we obscure their actual causes and effects. We also distance ourselves from any responsibility for helping students grow up. As an aside, this is actually something a number of athletic coaches I know do particularly well, and is a logic for having modest and well-run intercollegiate sports programs. This is also the time to note that although Zenith prohibits underage drinking, it promotes a custom called “senior cocktails” in which undergraduates, in their final year, periodically get drunk at events hosted by the university (events that are sometimes prowled by younger male faculty); and it tolerates a well-known arrangement between the downtown bars and the local police department by which no Zenith student is required to show an I.D. to purchase alcohol on Wednesday nights.
I say this not to expose Zenith as particularly hypocritical in this regard, since most colleges probably have similar arrangements, but to underline my point. By invoking “culture” we are tacitly taking the attitude that the best we can do as professional educators is to contain student behavior by policing it in increasingly draconian ways, turning a blind eye to it when we can, paying for any physical damage. What other choice do we have if students are bringing something to the table — “their culture” — that is terribly foreign and inferior to “our culture?”
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