Carolina Blue

Is College as Debauched as Tom Wolfe Thinks?
Examining higher ed.
Nov. 16 2005 6:51 AM

Carolina Blue

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Students stream across Polk Place, better known as the Quad. Click image to expand.
Students stream across Polk Place, better known as the Quad

This morning I had aerobic dance class at 8 a.m. It's the first 8:00 class I've had in college, and I brought it on myself. I had delusions that it would bring discipline to my daily routine—that I would wake up early and get lots of work done before my American Foreign Policy class at 2 p.m. Instead, I've slept through it three times already, and my grade will drop if I miss any more. UNC requires two semesters of physical education and the passing of a swim test; the latter is archaic and is being phased out. I'm in the last class of Carolina students who will gather in the final days of senior year to swim two laps and tread water for a few minutes.

After class, I grab a bagel and head to the library to finish reading about the second Bush administration's policy for preventive war for my American Foreign Policy class. Professor McKeown is an ideal political science professor: He's incisive and ruthless on classroom topics of political decision-making but dodgy about his own politics. The most effective professors I've had are the ones who can play devil's advocate on any side of an issue. It's easier for me to believe we're discussing a topic objectively if the professor isn't making periodic digs at the president—something that actually happens more often in the "less political" academic departments like English than in poli sci.

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UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the most liberal campuses in the South, a source of perpetual heartache to the very vocal College Republicans here. A few of the conservative students on campus have an affinity for suing the university. Each summer, incoming freshmen read the same book and participate in discussion groups the day before classes start; two years ago, the Republican "Committee for a Better Carolina" challenged UNC's selection of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed as our summer reading book. The conservative students were backed by the John William Pope Foundation, which paid for a full-page ad in the Raleigh News and Observer calling the book a "classic Marxist rant" and a work of "intellectual pornography with no redeeming characteristics." The committee suggested that in the interest of balance, students should be required to read Sam Walton's biography as well. That didn't happen, but the next year the summer reading book was Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point.

I worked on my friend Seth's campaign for student body president last year, and I ended up attending a College Republicans meeting for a candidates' forum. The meeting began with a prayer led by a student in cowboy boots and a huge belt buckle. A young woman in pearls made disdainful wisecracks about The Vagina Monologues, and the club president grilled the candidates about whether conservative organizations could get an entire office suite in the student union.

In both student parties, it's easy to spot the kids who have a shot at being the next Elizabeth Dole or John Edwards: They are unnervingly smooth, confident, and eager to shake your hand. They're part of why I don't buy the debauched and materialistic version of college life that Tom Wolfe sells in I Am Charlotte Simmons; there are simply too many varieties of people here, who are ambitious for very different things. We heard rumors that Mr. Wolfe did his research here and down the road at Duke, but it seems he must have hobnobbed with a pretty narrow crowd: Only 17 percent of Carolina students are in fraternities and sororities. I briefly considered rushing my freshman year, but once I got to campus I realized it wasn't my scene. Most of my friends didn't go Greek, either, though I have some friends in Chi Psi, which at UNC is known as "the smart frat" (among other things). Freshman year, I went to a frat-house cocktail party once. I was the only girl not in a black dress, but I got a lot of compliments.

Halloween on Franklin Street. Click image to expand.
Halloween on Franklin Street

Frat boys and sorority girls get a lot of flak for dressing alike, but the look is just Southern prep: the boys in khakis, pink Polo shirts, New Balance sneakers, and Croakies to secure their sunglasses. The girls wear essentially the same thing, matched with Citizens jeans, tote bags, and themed mixer T-shirts. Non-Greeks tend to dress like their friends as well, whether they are tight-pants hipsters or Croc-clad hippies. Black fraternities and sororities have their own styles and status symbols: white Nike Air Force Ones and monogrammed jackets. UNC always makes the list of the most black-friendly universities in the country, but still the most common complaint on campus is the prevalence of self-segregation.

After foreign policy was my fiction-writing workshop. It's the senior honors class, and we have to produce 50 pages of new work this semester. So far I'm at 15 pages, which means many late nights ahead. Hopefully I won't have to resort to writing disguised events from my own life; a lot of us in the class are friends, and they can tell when I'm writing about myself. Camaraderie doesn't take the edge off critiques, which can be brutal. (My own unforgiving comments have been dubbed "Wam-bombs.") Our professor (who is wise) said my last story was "ironic to the point of being incomprehensible." Thank goodness second semester is dedicated to revision.

I spend at least as much time on creative writing as I do on any of my other classes, and it's not even my major. By senior year it seems that majors are mostly irrelevant, anyway. You've realized that all those required classes still don't add up to a very coherent base of knowledge—instead you've become well-versed in the jargon of your field and know some impressive trivia. If you aren't sure what you want to do with your life, or if your aspirations are something vague like "being a writer," then a major is mostly a best guess at 10 classes that might be enjoyable or useful. I have chronic Major Envy, which causes me to cast a jealous eye at American studies and anthropology majors as I contemplate what might have been.

Shaken after my accident. Click image to expand.
Shaken after my accident

This evening I was late to meet some friends, so I pedaled fast through the darkness. When I'm in a hurry (and I usually am), I ride my bike more aggressively than is appropriate, given my novice biker status, and my reluctance to wear a helmet (vanity). My friend Adam has advised me that bikes don't have to obey traffic laws, as our civic reward for not using gas, so I cut across a corner; I saw an oncoming car slow down and assumed it saw me. It didn't. I rode right into it. I managed not to die or even fall off, but I was still surprised when the driver just kept going without stopping to see if I was OK. I was moved to be more careful, but incidents like this always have the stupid effect of making me think I'm immortal. My friends don't buy it; they've suggested I might need to overcome my vanity and wear a helmet after all.

Laurel Wamsley, a former Slate intern, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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