Luther Spoehr, Review of "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College" (Simon & Schuster, 2011).


[Luther Spoehr teaches courses on the history of American higher education at Brown University.]


Journalist Andrew Ferguson, senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of Land of Lincoln, has written a perfect book:  it makes you laugh and makes you think.  His two-year “crash course” ends with his son entering college, but getting there is both all and none of the fun.

Ferguson’s tale is a case study of “college mania,” an affliction of the upper-middle class that, he admits, is a ritual born of affluence that he and his family are lucky to have.  At the same time, the frenzied scramble to get into a selective college seems utterly irrational, not to mention absurd, sadistic, masochistic, and exhausting.  As an anthropological “participant/observer,” Ferguson strikes just the right wry, skeptical,  often hilarious, notes.

Like many contemporary parents who believe that “our children’s future is too important to be left to our children,” Ferguson jumps into the process early in his son’s junior year of high school, only to be informed by “Kat” Cohen, a high-priced college search consultant ($40.000 for the “platinum package”) that he’s a “baaaaad daaaaad” for not getting started years earlier.

Ferguson foregoes the consultant, but his interview with her is the first of many that shed light on the nearly two-year campaign to win admission to a selective school that will “signal” (the new buzzword) to the world that this student has the makings of a top-drawer employee.  Along the way he discovers the “law of constant contradictions”:  “for every piece of advice or information a parent or child receives while applying to college, there is an equal and opposite piece of advice or information that will contradict it.”  For instance, students should not be “serial joiners” with too many extracurriculars, but shouldn’t have too few, either.  Polonius could have been a college counselor.

Ferguson is at his best when satirizing the rhetoric that colleges invariably use to sell themselves, from viewbooks to campus tours to College Nights:  “Why, here at -----, professors practically compelled students to share in their Nobel-winning research.  With a one-to-one faculty ratio, average class size was infinitesimal.”  Students learn to respond in kind:  “the first great task consuming our children as they step into the wider world is an act of marketing, with themselves as a product.” 

With unfailing humor, Ferguson pointedly explores college rankings, the SAT, “College Confidential,” FAFSA and EFC, and what happens when similarly obsessed parents (“the Kitchen People”) get together.  His book’s continued relevance is certain.  Although the fat and thin envelopes of decision have gone out to this year’s applicants, the spin cycle has already begun for the next batch.  Where it will stop, nobody knows.

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