Paying for the Party — Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton

Paying for the Party is a specialist book likely to be of particular interest to two audiences—university-involved people / researchers and parents of high school and college students—but it has a couple other notable features: it inadvertently shows why so many teachers are so bad, it is broadly compatible with Bryan Caplan’s view of education as a signaling mechanism, and the authors treat the women they write about like passive receptacles for the amorphously described desires of other people.

To construct their narrative, the authors live with a cohort of freshmen girls in a large dorm and then follow the girls’s progress through the university—or away from it. Here’s an example of their paternalism:

Even if women are willing to socialize without alcohol, the university offers comparatively few opportunities [. . .] The women on our floor, who loved to dance, often complained that there was nowhere to do this other than fraternities. [. . .] Fraternity men choose party themes, decide who can enter and who can leave parties, and generally dictate the social lives of the campuses youngest and most vulnerable residents. (53–4)

Paying for the PartyThis passage implies that women have no agency in what they do and aren’t really accountable for their actions: instead, nebulous the “university” or “fraternity men” are the ones who “dictate” what happens to “vulnerable” women. Women can create their own opportunities for socialization (otherwise known, among normal humans, as “hosting a party” or “getting together with friends”). The school in question sounds like the University of Arizona, where innumerable forums were available for dancing: ballroom club, swing club, and a bunch of others. The authors have too much credulousness here; the frat system persists in part because women support it by going to frat parties. That being said, the inability of women to enter bars where older women go to get laid also plays a role; this is an unintended and rarely discussed consequence of making the official drinking age 21 when the unofficial drinking age is much younger.

(EDIT: Sororities apparently pay lower insurance fees in return for not hosting parties. Nonetheless, there are proposals, like mine in the preceding paragraph, to allow sororities to host parties. This seems like a wildly obvious step to me but Armstrong and Hamilton never seem to consider it: Without consciously realizing it, they are determined to frame women as passive victims—and they succeed.)

As with so many social science books, the authors seem to have no familiarity with evolutionary biology or for that matter their own society: “All women had to do to get to a fraternity party was to stand out front.” And they got “free alcohol” at frats. Have they not heard of K-selection? Men compete to be selected by women, but my anecdotal observation is that relatively few women perceive this because they’re in turn focused on a relatively small number of high-status men, with status defined differently in different context. Lower status men can be nearly invisible. Armstrong and Hamilton seem not to realize or understand this.

Beyond that, Harry Brighouse’s Crooked Timber post on the book is good. Of particular interest is this, when Brighouse says that “A typical reaction [from his student reading group] has been ‘I wish I had seen this in my first year of college, I’d have understood the institution and how to navigate it so much better.'” I heard a lot of analogous statements, in many contexts, at the University of Arizona; there is a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge that goes into navigating the educational or health systems successfully, and too little of that knowledge is explicit (that’s one reason I wrote some of my essays about how universities really work). The students who most need to read such essays or a book like Paying for the Party are probably the ones least likely to do so and most likely to pay for their party long after the party is over.

In addition, most of the professors and grad students who teach college classes probably aren’t going to identify with lost or party-oriented students. The kinds of people who become obsessed with a topic enough to go to academic grad school and then make it as a professor are for the most part huge nerds. People tend to self-segregate and consequently the nerds who are teaching classes are looking for the nerds or proto-nerds taking them. That was certainly true of me; the students who didn’t really like reading, English, or thinking weren’t of tremendous interest to me. There’s an inherent culture clash between nerds (who are by and large selected to be grad students and then professors) and party-oriented people. When I was a grad student I provided lots of feedback to students who tended to be nerds (and thus wanted to talk to me) and much less to those who didn’t tend to be nerds (and thus didn’t much want to talk to me).

The culture clash issue is a small example of the general problem that often occurs when taking a thing that was created primarily to do one thing—create knowledge, and train and house future knowledge workers—and then adapt it to do something else—provide job training or at least job signaling for everyone. Nerds, even in a relatively broad sense, have always been and probably always will be a relatively small proportion of the population and by now pretty much every nerd, broadly defined, in the U.S. is going to college. The number of people at the margins who are well-equipped either financially by their parents or intellectually by themselves and their schools to succeed in big research universities is probably small.

Paying for the Party inadvertently mentions why so many teachers in American schools are so bad: they spend much of their life in college partying and know that “education” is an easy major. Hilariously, we find this: “Some women, however, struggled to pass teacher certification tests.” I hope the tests in the Midwestern state studied are harder than the ones in Washington. I’ve written this before, but I took the general teacher test and the English-specific test in Washington State, cold, and got a certificate saying I was in the top five or two percent of the test takers. It was shockingly, insanely easy. I think I would’ve passed when I was in high school. That nominal college grads would struggle on a similar exam could be another datum in Academically Adrift.

The other “easy” majors make college deceptive for marginal students, like many of those Armstrong and Hamilton follow, but from the university’s perspective one should ask: What’re the alternatives? Armstrong and Hamilton recommend making college harder, which sounds fine to me, but students who can’t handle “tourism” or “apparel management” aren’t going to become chemical engineers instead. Even if one somehow removed the easy majors (“somehow” does a lot of work in this sentence), the result would be that marginal students drop out. Showing up in college and not being able to write simple sentences or do algebra means that real intellectual learning is likely to take a long time to develop—if it ever does.

To return to gender politics, the authors say there is a group of women who “were not poised to move upward” economically and “Virtually all [of them] were servicing substantial debt.” “Several of these women actively sought men who could help support them [. . .] Others struggled to find ideal candidates who were willing to commit” (213). But the authors (again) never look at a man’s perspective: Why would a high-status, high-skill man want to marry a random woman with limited skills or prospects? Especially one with high levels of debt?

The phrase “don’t buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” comes to mind. Evidently the women described didn’t learn about empathy while in college. Men are as selective as women regarding long-term relationships (see here for one example of the literature). The authors do get to something like this point around pages 222 – 3. Many of the women look down on otherwise decent-seeming guys; both they and the authors don’t seem to realize that there aren’t a huge number of jobs in glamour industries like “fashion” or “entertainment.” Unless I missed it, words like “computer science” and “electrical engineering” never appear.

I can’t find the quote right now, but I’ve seen something like this: “What the rich accept as their right the poor pay for with their youth.”

* See also Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education by Murray Sperber, which a friend who owned an LSAT test-prep company recommended. It was an early and effective effort to pop the approval bubble most of the education-industrial complex once lived in; looking at the totality of the evidence, it’s hard to be unambiguously in favor of the current college, and college-subsidy, system.

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