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Among the myriad guides Ferguson buys for his research is 100 Successful College Essays. He tosses it to his son, who flips through it.
“’…I was four when my brother Timmy died…’ He went quiet, then almost whispered, ‘What am I going to write about?
He looked at me.
‘Couldn’t you guys get a divorce?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said
‘It would give me something to write about. You can get back together once I’m done with the essays.’
‘Not going to happen.’
‘I wish I’d grown up in the inner city.’
‘No you don’t.’
‘I wish I’d become a drug addict.’
‘There’s still time, I said.
He lowered his forehead to the desk. ‘I’m a white kid living in the suburbs. I’m happy. My family is happy. My brother Timmy didn’t die.’
‘You don’t have a brother Timmy.’
‘Exactly. Then what am I going to write about.’”
Crazy U contains deadpan moments of head-shake-inducing ludicrousness that will make the reader realize that Ferguson is not so much a satirist as a reporter — the satire is built in. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
Here’s a quick quiz. What do the initials “SAT” stand for? If you said Standardized Achievement Test, sorry. They stand for … nothing! Both “Achievement” and “Test” were at some point considered too judgmental, or stress-inducing … or something.
But even as he gets settled and satisfied that his son is able to go to the school he really wants to attend — a place identified as BSU (Big State University), where the boy could go to major football games with his chest painted the school colors and “major in beer” — Dad gets a peek at his son’s course load.
Since his first few choices for history credit are filled, the selections come down to a course about the TV show Mad Men, “Intro to Queer Theory” and “The 1960s.” Ferguson is reduced to being relieved that his son is able to get into the ’60s course, despite the fact it is taught by someone who waxes rapturously about Abbie Hoffman and the Port Huron Statement, and whose “enthusiasm was greatly increased by virtue of his being too young to have seen any of it first hand.”
Ferguson writes like a more amiable Mark Twain. While he may lack Twain’s sharp elbows, he has a big heart and the insight to find the humanity in those whose methods he is skewering.
While this is mostly a memoir, Ferguson also hints at what many see as the coming higher ed bubble. There has simply been too much money thrown at a diminishing product, in a manner that really amounts to a wealth transfer to a select group of people and to communities whose economies have come to depend on the trickle-down effect of such wretched excess.
As in the housing bubble, the rising prices are driven by debt that is encouraged by those who have nothing to lose if it is not paid back. He notes:
“Colleges have no incentive to discourage students from taking on debt; when a kid borrows money to pay for schools, the school itself has no ‘exposure,’ as the bankers say. The lender — a bank or the government — holds the note, and the student assumes the liability. The school gets paid up front.
‘We’re borrowing eighty billion dollars a year to go to college…’”
There are plenty of exposes out there on each topic Ferguson delves into, but possibly no other single volume covers this much territory — and I guarantee none of them are nearly this entertaining.
Whatever you’re second-guessing how your kid ended up where he or she is or just beginning to be bombarded by the whole panoply of hucksters and guilt mongers clustered around the university scene — or even if you just enjoy great humorous writing — you owe it to yourself to read Crazy U.
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