OK, choir, we sung this tune before, but here again is Maestro Bierce from his Devil’s Dictionary Songbook:
ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
ACADEMY, n. (from academe). A modern school where football is taught.
Bierce’s piercing definition found print about the same time James Thurber attended college, circa 1912. From Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times comes the essay, “University Days.” In his required economics course at Ohio State was a tackle on the football team, one Bolenciecwcz, one of the team’s “outstanding stars.”
In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for [Bolenciecwcz] to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter. Most of his professors were lenient and helped him along. None gave him more hints, in answering questions, or asked him simpler ones than the economics professor, a thin, timid man named Bassum. One day when we were on the subject of transportation and distribution, it came Bolenciecwcz’s turn to answer a question. “Name one means of transportation,” the professor said to him. No light came into the big tackle’s eyes. “Just any means of transportation,” said the professor. Bolenciecwcz sat staring at him. “That is,” pursued the professor, “any medium, agency, or method of going from one place to another.” Bolenciecwcz had the look of a man who is being led into a trap. “You may choose among steam, horse-drawn, or electricity propelled vehicles,” said the instructor. “I might suggest the one which we commonly take in making long journeys across land.” There was a profound silence in which everybody stirred uneasily, including Bolenciecwcz and Mr. Bassum. Mr. Bassum abruptly broke his silence in an amazing manner. “Choo-choo-choo,” he said, in a low voice, and turned instantly scarlet. He glanced appealingly around the room. All of us, of course, shared Mr. Bassum’s desire that Bolenciecwcz should stay abreast of the class in economics, for the Illinois game, one of the hardest and most important of the season, was only a week off. “Toot, toot, too-toooooooot!” some student with a deep voice moaned, and we all looked encouragingly at Bolenciecwcz. Somebody else gave a fine imitation of a locomotive letting off steam. Mr. Bassum himself rounded off the little show. “Ding, dong, ding, dong,” he said, hopefully. Bolenciecwcz was staring at the floor now, trying to think, his great brow furrowed, his huge hands rubbing together, his face red.
“How did you come to college this year, Mr. Bolenciecwcz?” asked the professor. “Chuffa chuffa, chuffa, chuffa.”
“M’father sent me,” said the football player.
“What on?” asked Bassum.
“I git an ‘lowance,” said the tackle, in a low, husky voice, obviously embarrassed.
“No, no,” said Bassum. “Name a means of transportation. What did you ride here on?”
“Train,” said Bolenciecwcz.
“Quite right,” said the professor. “Now, Mr. Nugent, will you tell us—”
The university I am visiting is busy building yet another athletic complex, large and inviting, to supplement the several other large and inviting athletic complexes who capacities were being strained. This university is not atypical: the sports fields take up a substantial proportion of the school’s real estate.
I haven’t made a systematic examination, of course, but each time I have been to the library, I have found it a very peaceful, uncrowded place; as well as warm and inviting. It’s computers nearest the main doors are nearly always manned, however—by students checking their Facebook accounts. Once I saw a student on what looked like a poker betting site.
As near as I can discern, the informal policy of many universities—certainly not just this one—is of helping the students make it through courses by any means necessary, to include methods with which Professor Bassum so generously assisted Bolenciecwcz the star athlete. Large failure rates would reflect negatively on a college’s ratings, thus hurting them financially when they went to their State legislatures to beg for more money.
In any case, as these writings show, the problem is far from new. We have been on the downward slope in general education—and not in original research—for quite some time. The bottom is still before us.