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Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

In Campus Life, Helen Horowitz “attempts to describe the variety of ways that undergraduates have defined themselves, viewed their professors and fellow collegians, formed associations, and created systems of meaning and codes of behavior” in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, in order to explain the modern phenomena of student culture in the 1980s.  (pg. ix)  Although she attempts an interdisciplinary approach to this work, her sole background in history tends to make her assumptions of sociology and psychology seem unfounded because she does not provide ample evidence.  Although her prose are phenomenal and make the book fun to read, it seems that she is not really saying much of consequence, and her argument that there are three distinct types of college students, college men, outsiders, and rebels, that have been ever-present since the middle of the nineteenth century seems weak and unfounded when she tries to add two more types, the New Outsiders and quiet rebels.

Horowitz’s breakdown of the three main groups is almost entirely class based, in which the ‘college men and women’ are nothing more than the children of the land-owning elite who only engage with students of like status and create secret societies in order to separate themselves from the Horowitz’s ‘outsiders.’  ‘Outsiders’ were children of working class farmers who went to university to become ministers.  They keep their head down, work hard, study intently, and are there in order to earn a degree.  Ingrassia would say that this is a prime example of trying to mix highbrow and lowbrow culture, but only to a certain extent.  Horowitz’s ‘rebels’ fill the void of the middle class.  They come from mildly affluent families in search of professional jobs.  They were not in college before the Victorian and Progressive Era because they did not previously need a degree to do the job they were destined to do.  The evolution of the American university, especially after the Morrill Act of 1862, plays out just like Gorn’s evolution of boxing; poor men were there because it was their only chance out of poverty, while the rich men were there for their own entertainment.  Once the two cultures began to disagree, middle class men joined in to bridge the divide.

Her use of autobiographies and memoirs as the base of primary documents makes it difficult to sort truth from fictions caused by misremembering and dishonesty from the authors, but she does a pretty good job of finding the main story lines of student life and using them to give the broad story to her readers.  Horowitz understands the limitations she has put on her writing because she is attempting to cover a large subject over a 200 year span, so she plans to give only the highlights as she paints the big picture of student culture.  Although she grasps the idea that “undergraduates have been divided into contending cultures”(289) throughout the past two centuries, her plan to recognize only three backfires a bit, in my opinion, because she doesn’t have substantial evidence to make the broad generalization that there were indeed three types of college students.  Horowitz is trying to relate student cultures of the past too closely with modern student culture, and the book suffers because of it.

Horowitz’s attempt to write an interdisciplinary book grounded in history was not great, and her lack of evidence and generalized findings will alienate most historians, but her target audience of college and university administrators as well as parents of current or soon-to-be college students can use this work in order to remember that not every student has the same experience while in college, and hopefully it helps provide some extra freedom for college students.

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