Similar to the Frank Capra comedy-drama which made Jimmy Stewart famous Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the new book by David Stag, Bill Smith Goes to College contains angst, drama, and humor. Stagg's message is timely as young people prepare to start college including our son. What should we, both parents and students, expect? You might find it surprising!
Our ingnue and hero, Bill, is from a small town in Iowa. His parents saved their whole lives to provide him with the opportunity to achieve more than they have. They want him to have the "best" education. But, Bill finds out that education isn't really what goes on at Mountebank University.
Among other things what goes on is co-ed, or gender neutral bathrooms. Girls and boys use the same bathroom, at the same time, even showering. Fiction mirrors reality and some colleges in Iowa have dual bathrooms. At the same time there is ever greater focus, at fictional Mountebank and in reality, on alleged sexual assaults by our young men. Bill finds this all very confusing as he wasn't brought up this way. He resorts to showering in the middle of the night to avoid seeing naked girls and having them see him. This is the first of many strange happenings. In one exchange Bill's protector, Clyde tells him, "Look around you. This is the real world. Or maybe it's not." Clyde then adds, "It's not you. It's them."
Bill finds he's not taking classes in Engineering, his major but instead is registered for random subjects, in which the professors don't even teach the assigned subject. There are no answers to straightforward questions, and long lines for every administrative request, though lots of administrators.
Wondering to friends if this is actually what he should be spending his parents' hard-earned money on, an international student asks Bill why he's paying cash for tuition, then elaborates, "That's not the right way to do it,' said Sunir. 'We learned this last year.You must borrow the money. There was no talk of this saving you speak of. When you need the money, you borrow it. When you borrow it, you promise to pay it back. Then you wait for them to tell you that you don't have to pay it back. This is quite exciting. If you just wait long enough, they will say it is no longer necessary to pay the money back. It makes it much easier that way. It's a very good system.'" Bill eventually finds out that the system won't let him flunk out, they want his money but he must conform to "pass."
For fun he attends a football game, ending in disaster as the students' riot and destroy campus buses an event which is traditional and planned for by the administration. "The good thing about football is that you can just sit back and enjoy the violence, even if you don't know what's going on." Clyde rescues him after the football game and as part of his mentoring keeps telling Bill that everyone will have to pass a test at some point that determines what type of person they will be when they grow up. The test finally happens after Bill discovers the truth about higher education, and as all heroes should wins the girl.
The topics parodied in the book are all relevant today, including campus free speech, degree content, graduation time, housing arrangements, and student loan debt. I recommend all college bound students, and their parents, read it. Not only is it funny, but it might open some parents' eyes about what is really going on when their children go away to college.
Bill Smith Goes to College, by David Stag, 2012, ISBN: 1478375965
Deborah D. Thornton is a research analyst at the Public Interest Institute, in Mount Pleasant.