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A New Hedonism At the Barricades

The images are eerily familiar: cops in riot gear, hundreds of college students chanting defiance, and wisps of tear gas floating through the late spring night. Mob psychology has raised its ugly head on campuses across the country - from two nights of violence this past weekend at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to recent riots at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Michigan State University at East Lansing, and Washington State University in Pullman. Small wonder that college administrators are looking forward to graduation exercises with a special fondness. When the nation's campuses empty, beer-drinking and antisocial behavior move elsewhere.

What's happening on our campuses bears no relationship to the 1960s campus disruptions that divided our nation and ground the war in Vietnam to a halt. Many still debate that strange combination of political idealism and romantic indulgence, but no such high-minded controversy attaches itself to those who went ballistic when Michigan State University administrators ruled out beer at next season's football tailgate parties. Riots at the other institutions are being investigated, but my hunch is that the causes will never be precisely identified nor will the ringleaders ever be punished.

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What we are dealing with is the politics of hedonism. It has radically altered what students mean by "fun," turning it into an entitlement. Binge drinking is considered fun, even though most adults see it as evidence of unhappiness. As this odd logic unfolds, if one can get blasted and "go a little nuts" in a large crowd, so much the better. Get in the way of this "fun," and there's going to be mass protest.

The politics of the new hedonism finds itself sharing space with the old politics of accommodation and cowardice. Administrators have always been reluctant to call in the cops, feeling that the campus is a privileged place where all manner of dissent should be free to express itself. But many students now wish to express antisocial and illegal behaviors. Still, they're students, which all too often means that they must remain "satisfied" if their parents are going to continue ponying up tuition and fees. Undergraduate life now includes much more than a series of rigorous college courses. Indeed, many argue that the genuinely rigorous college course has become an endangered species, gradually replaced by the dumbed-down, politically correct, and fashionably trendy. Faculty members continue to debate curriculum, often without a clue that life outside the classroom revolves around other concerns. As poet A. E. Houseman observed, "Malt can do more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man." If many students no longer catch the allusion to the "Paradise Lost" author, you can count on them knowing that what Houseman calls "malt," they call beer. Thus was it ever - from the time when beer was invented and universities first established. The combination was always problematic, but in the age of the new hedonism it threatens to be downright volatile.

I can imagine Jerry Springer licking his chops at the prospect of disgruntled undergraduates facing off against fun-busting deans. My sympathies would go out to the deans, but I'd gently remind them that they are more than a little responsible for the sad turn of affairs that campus life has taken in the last two decades. As for the yahoos, they need to be told that there are indeed issues worth becoming exercised about, but that beer is not one of them.

* Sanford Pinsker, a professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., is editor of Academic Questions, a quarterly publication of the National Association of Scholars.

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