The back to school moment: American universities and the machinery of nostalgia

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(Harold Lloyd wins the big game, pasted from Wikipedia)

It’s back to school week here at my university, and right on cue the weather’s turning autumnal; the first classes have already met, our department’s had its first faculty meeting, students are wandering around in their new U Buffalo gear.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty astounding moment in American life– I mean, how many collective rituals have we got that compare to the back-to-college process?   Over the next two weeks, all over the country, red states and blue, in the big cities and the small towns, you’ll have basically the same scenes playing out– families arriving in their SUVs with all the stuff their kids need, the kids themselves getting to know their roommates and their campuses, checking out the bars, sitting through orientation sessions and intro lectures.

It’s not just the geographical uniformity that’s impressive, either, there’s also the long historical shadow– because the scripts being acted out today go back a really long way. Harold Lloyd’s movie The Freshman came out in 1925, and it’s already got most of the pieces in place– the anxious kid showing up for his first year at the Big U and worrying about popularity, big-time sports, bullying and teasing. And Wikipedia is there to remind us, the freshman character’s ideas about college come from a movie he‘s seen, about what college life is supposed to be like. That sums up an important side of American ideas about college– there seems to be an infinite-regress nostalgia machine at work, with each generation looking back at an earlier American college experience, and trying their best to live out those traditions.

Of course there’s plenty in today’s back-to-college moment that doesn’t fit the Harold Lloyd script, starting with the students themselves. The Freshman‘s college scene included only white, middle-class men; now campuses really are diverse places, with large numbers of people of color, and an outright majority of women students. There’s also the insane financial machinery today’s students have to deal with.  Money wasn’t a big deal for Harold Lloyd’s freshman hero, he was constantly shelling out for high-end luxuries. Today, even middle class families wrestle with astronomical college costs, and there’s a general sense that college debt is forever, a lifetime burden. Then there are all the gadgets, visible everywhere on campus– the students updating their social media pages, the administration pushing online courses, the faculty showing movies and organizing internet discussions.

But to me the interesting thing is how all these big changes haven’t shaken up the basic script– actually, parts of the Harold Lloyd-style script have more of a hold on us than ever. Fraternities and campus partying are bigger than ever, and football’s booming, despite being expensive, catastrophically dangerous, and connected with some serious anti-social behavior– at Baylor U, in Texas, football players have been accused of committing fifty-two rapes from 2011 to 2014. All good reasons to drop the whole thing, you might think– but in fact college football’s booming. Since 1978, an average of five schools have added football every year, making for a grand total of 774 college football teams across the country– did you even know there were that many colleges in the US?

And when they go in for football, colleges these days are going all in. As of 2015, at least seventy-two head football coaches were making over a million dollars a year; twenty made over 4 million, and the top guy on the list made 9 million; he’s at Michigan, where in-state students can expect to pay about $28,000 per year. Given that so many students today are facing lifetime debt peonage to cover those expenses, those are some amazing numbers.

As always, endless complications lurk behind the statistics. When they overpay for football, college presidents aren’t just trying to please students– they’ve got wealthy donors and state politicians to worry about. Plus some colleges make so much money from TV rights that big-time football investment is a no-brainer; what really matters is to get a winning coach, and for that you have to pay top dollar. There are complicated calculations about what even a lousy football team can do for your school’s national profile– it’s not just a student experience, it’s an advertising medium.

So lots of forces converge to create the back-to-college rituals we’re seeing this week, and some can be understood in terms of old-fashioned, mildly-sordid self-interest. But there’s also the influence of less mechanical forces, America’s collective dreams about how life ought to look. College life is a big component of those dreams. We’re willing to spend a lot of money– all those tuition dollars, all those coaching salaries, all the stadium upgrades– keeping Harold Lloyd’s comic book vision of the university alive, maintaining a zone where it’s always 1925. You could say, it’s the university signing up to play its part in the Hollywood Dreamland Industrial Complex, in the same way the US military works with Hollywood to shape our collective imaginations.

In 1947, the very great Preston Sturges made a sequel to The Freshman, showing what happened to the hero in the twenty years after he won the big game for his college team; Sturges even got Harold Lloyd himself to come back and reprise the role. What happened  to the hero of course was nothing good–a crummy job for an exploitative boss, a disappointing love life. Sturges understood that the dreamland university experience wasn’t a great preparation for the real American world. So here in 2017, where’s our Preston Sturges?