WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The other day, while happily contemplating the corruption that is turning up at the United Nations, my plans to contemplate what it all means were disrupted by a telephone call from a college student in tears.
No, it was not a young man in tears, but a young woman -- and so you will understand why I packed away the stories of corruption in the United Nations. Reporters at The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have found that Saddam was paying off world leaders -- one being a powerful bureaucrat at the United Nations -- with billions of dollars skimmed from the famed oil-for-peace program. This, along with mounting evidence that the Europeans were prospering handsomely by supplying arms to Saddam and any other well-heeled tyrant, might explain why "world opinion" was so opposed to our invasion of Iraq. Documents in Baghdad amount to a veritable corpus delicti.
Yet there will always be time to ventilate the misbehavior of the hypocrites at the United Nations and in foreign capitals. For now, I have my troubled young friend to contend with. She is a student finishing a college degree on a major American college campus, and her recent experience reminds me of a matter that has fetched my attention frequently of late -- to wit, many college students do not have much to them. In a word, many are vacuous.
My friend had been visiting with some male and female friends in her off-campus apartment. The friends were slow to leave as the evening dragged on, and so she went to bed, expecting them -- all good friends -- to depart soon after she disappeared. When she awoke the next morning, she found one of the young men had drunk his way through the night in her living room, watching DVDs and emptying her refrigerator. By 9:00 a.m., he was stupefied and mildly abusive but otherwise preparing to drink his way through the day. My friend sent him packing, but she was deeply troubled and I suspect alarmed. She had never seen the young man act that way before.
I guess this is what is called "binge drinking," and apparently there is a lot of it on college campuses nowadays. When I was a student in the 1960s, I knew of students who drank their way through the weekend and would sozzle themselves on an occasional weeknight. That was a lot of drinking, but apparently students today drink with even more abandon. On college campuses, there is not much more to do. Rendering oneself comatose is the most interesting pursuit available.
Certainly the college curriculum on most campuses is neither interesting nor demanding -- which is the crux of the matter. Anyone who has had an opportunity to compare the workload of a generation ago with the workload carried by college students today knows why college students have a lot of time on their hands. The profs demand much less reading and writing today than in the 1960s, when campus reformers began to gut the curriculum. The reformers relaxed the rigor of college studies. Today's profs must have a lot of time on their hands, too. Maybe they, too, binge drink -- but more discreetly.
Actually, the very best students today are probably as good as the best students were in years gone by. Their performance upon graduation suggests that. But it is the lesser students who strike me as so empty. When I encounter them, they seem almost always to be very amiable but also ignorant, aimless and bland. Today's youth culture lacks esprit . I suspect this is because so little is demanded of the rank and file. They have their cars and high-tech entertainments, ample funds and time on their hands. They are a pale rendition of generations past.
I was struck by the vacuity of today's college students while watching CNN's documentary of the rise and fall of Dr. Howard Dean. Much of his support came from college students. They were the contemporary version of the 1960s collegians who campaigned for Sen. Eugene McCarthy's insurgent presidential bid against President Lyndon Johnson by getting "Clean for Gene."
Those students had some fizz to them. They sang folk music, and they sang well. They composed slogans, and they were literate. I disagreed with them, but they were for the most part learned, highly principled political activists. Dean's youthful volunteers brigades were dopes, and untalented dopes. Unless CNN was befooling us, the kids were listless, vacant and not even very convincingly angry. The songs they sang were infantile.
If I were among the bored and the under-employed on campus today, possibly I, too, would become a binge drinker. Yet it seems like an awful waste of time and, for that matter, of good booze. Perhaps they could steal a chapter from 1920s collegians and become goldfish swallowers -- assuming the animal rights indignados would not object.