Rowers, readers, and rebels. How American college student experience has changed over 300 years

Campus Life, by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 294 pp. $24.95. Much of the direction and shape of American life has been forged in the smithy of college student cultures.

But most of what we know about those cultures comes from scattered reminiscences, biographies, novels, and college histories - many of them over-idealized or nostalgic.

This fine new work by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is a scholarly attempt to draw a sociological portrait of the development of those cultures, dating back to the 18th century. (Though Horowitz does include a reference to the not-so-upright Harvard students in 1667, who played cards and stole chickens from their Cambridge neighbors.)

Among the 2 to 10 percent of Americans who went to college before 1900, there were two basic types, she says. One was the ``college man'' (and, later, woman), who went to school as part of the ritual of the upper class. To the college man, school was a sport - a place to develop style as well as a lifelong network of contacts.

``Classes and books existed as the price one had to pay for college life, but no right-thinking college man worried about marks beyond the minimum needed to stay in the game,'' Horowitz writes.

The second type was the ``outsider'' - typically a farm boy studying for the ministry - who took college seriously, who needed school. Yet for that reason, he existed outside the culture of the ``college man,'' who considered him a ``dig,'' a ``fag,'' a ``grip,'' a ``blue,'' and, later, a ``grind,'' or a ``meatball'' (a grind who lived off-campus). College was divided between the reading men and the rowing men, Horowitz says.

Foreign policy elderstatesman George Kennan, for example, went to Princeton from the Midwest in 1921 after reading F.Scott Fitzgerald's ``This Side of Paradise,'' hoping for the same rapturous ivy-league life he found in the novel. Instead, he found himself ``always at the end of every line, always uninitiated, knowing few, known by few,'' awkward and unable to crack the ``tight and secure little communities.''

But it was during these early years of the 20th century that a new ``type'' emerged - the culture of the rebel. Like Walter Lippmann at Harvard, rebels were often excluded from traditional ``college life'' (Lippmann was Jewish), but they did not settle for anonymity. They created a world of their own. It was a time of modern political, social, artistic, and intellectual awakening, and rebels felt that college must connect to the larger, ``real'' world. The campus newspaper and government were fair game. In 1927, Lyndon Johnson, excluded from the prestigious Black Stars, an athletic club at San Marcos College in Texas, joined the secret White Stars club, and, by rallying other students through the newspaper, gained control of the student council.

The tradition of the rebel would have its full flowering in the 1960s. But, as Horowitz documents, revolt and friction on campus date to the earliest days of college. Students and faculty have been at constant odds over curriculum and rules. In 1800, Princeton students revolted against a dismissal of three of their fellows and set off a major riot. At the University of North Carolina a few years later, students horsewhipped the president. Yale students in the 1820s bombed a hall.

The forming of literary societies in the mid-1800s on many campuses was a serious effort among undergrads to question the relation of knowledge to life in a way rote classes did not. But student grievances and divisions went far beyond curriculum, and thus the fraternity was born - in opposition to established authority - but only to quickly lose its divisive nature and become a standard feature of ``college life,'' smiled upon by college presidents.

From the 1920s to the '50s, fraternities and sororites held sway over most colleges, but gradually, Horowitz found, the barriers between the rebels, outsiders, and college men and women broke down.

In the 1960s, mass education, civil rights, the Vietnam war, and the democracy of rock and roll and blue jeans completed the job.

By the 1970s, students had lost the time-honored traditions (campus kings and homecoming queens were a joke), as well as the spirit of rebellion. The author's chapter title says it all: ``The Nerds Take Revenge.'' Schools ceased to be ``a definable place,'' but were settings to act out ``private dramas of personal fulfillment and ambition.''

Today, she writes, schools are dominated by ``the New Outsider,'' for whom grades are the ultimate value, and who put ``all responsibility for learning in the professors' hands.'' Horowitz does find hope, though, in the ``quiet rebels of the present,'' who are not easily identifiable, fight careerism, and question rather than attack.

Her motive for writing the book, in fact, is based on a frustration with the lack of intellectual adventure she finds among her own students (she is a professor of history at the University of Southern California). Too many seem unwilling to ``connect with the life of the mind; ideas are far too risky in the game of grade-seeking they play,'' she writes.

``Campus Life'' does not take up the battles fought within the academy over curriculum and the way knowledge has been structured in the academy - or the specialization of college departments. Horowitz instead seems to have a faith that students who seriously pursue ``living knowledge,'' who have an ontological yearning, can themselves shape the means and ends of college.

``The primary fact in undergraduate life today is not that the 1960s are over or that Reagan appeals to the young. It is that the imperatives of the 20th century will not go away.''

The story Horowitz tells is detailed and fascinating. Special and warranted attention is given to women, blacks, Jews, and veterans. She is especially sympathetic to the outsider. However, one suspects there have been important cultures outside Horowitz's own focus - among law, science, and engineering students, and yes, even those headed for corporate or small business worlds. But that's niggling.

Overall, this is an important book at a time of renewed debate about the role and purpose of college in America.

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