April is the cruelest month, and August is the melancholy month. Even the crickets sing a different song at dusk as August begins summer's slow retreat. Children listen for the back-to-school bells as autumn closes in and the days begin to get noticeably shorter.
Bicycle baskets morph into book bags. Sandals give way to tighter shoes, and the days of flip-flops are numbered. Sand from the beaches becomes the sand through the hourglass in the science lab. Free spirits are rounded up and structured into classes of whiteboards and textbooks overflowing with data. Teachers promise expeditions to new frontiers of knowledge.
But the mournful crickets have a point. Some critics argue that the colleges are turning students into intellectual zombies, never touching their souls. William Deresiewicz writes in The New Republic how the young at the elite colleges are so focused on making a return on their investment they're not interested in what makes them interesting people. Expensive accomplishments required for making it into the Ivy League, such as high SAT scores, the fruit of expensive private schools and tutors, extra-curricular activities of do-good adventures in poverty work on the other side of the globe or a mastery of violin, cello or clarinet (preferably all three), exhaust the spirit, if not the mind.
Top applicants become trapped in a "bubble of privilege," taught to regard affluence, status and credentials as the crucial life values, more concerned with conforming to standards of "excellence" at the expense of the exhilaration that comes with the personal discovery of new ideas in the great writers of the classics. Mr. Deresiewicz tells of a student who left Yale complaining it was "stifling to the parts of yourself that you'd call a soul." Introduction to Computer Science is the most popular freshman course at Harvard. The English major is almost extinct, and economics, "the dismal science," is the top major at 26 of the nation's top 40 universities and colleges.
A wit once observed that if man had made the progress in the culinary arts that he has in education, he would be eating soup with his hands. It's no better now. A modern casualty is the English major, who studies literature to better understand the perplexities and complexities of life. Classic literature holds up a mirror to human nature, exposing a multitude of experiences that make up the human condition, developing a many-angled point of view. The mirror delivers provocative glimpses into the truth of experience through insight into what Matthew Arnold called "the best that was known and thought in the world."