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Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be undergraduates.

12:00 AM, Sep 15, 2006 • By JOSEPH LINDSLEY
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AS THE NEW ACADEMIC YEAR BEGINS, parents will give, as they always do, lectures about studying hard and attending class. But nonetheless many collegians will devote time to chugging pints, throwing darts, and doing just about anything that doesn't involve cracking the books. This seems a gross waste of resources, but, considering the often ridiculous content of those neglected textbooks and ignored lectures, some of these prodigal students just might be better off.

This may seem a sinister suggestion, but even the scholarly John Henry Newman--not one to spend much time away from the books--made a similar suggestion in the 19th century: The young men of his day, he wrote, would benefit more from a university that required nothing of its students at all--simply bringing them together in revelry for four years--than from one that, omitting residential and academic oversight, awarded degrees to anyone who could pass tests on a scattered array of subjects. At least then they would be graduated without their minds having been contorted by an inundation of random crumbs of knowledge.

His point applies equally well to the present. Many American universities today allow students to select every aspect of their education from a dazzling display of courses, with only vague "distribution requirements," as if they were ordering from an overabundant Super Value Menu. (UCLA's motto--"Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are. They just want to see what you do"--might as well be the same as Burger King's: "Have It Your Way".) A University of Colorado student, for example, could have the following "core curriculum," which is just one permutation out of thousands of options that fulfills the seven "requirements":

(1) Cultural and Gender Diversity: "Social Construction of Feminities and Masculinities"

(2) United States Context: "Women of Color and Activism"

(3) Historical Context: "Maritime People: Fishers and Seafarers"

(4) Literature and the Arts: "Cultural Difference through Hispanic Literature"

(5) Natural Science: "El Nino, Ozone and Climate"

(6) Contemporary Societies: "Juvenile Delinquency"

(7) Ideals and Values: "Disabilities in Contemporary American Society"

If American college graduates aren't going to all be reading the classics, wouldn't it be better if the experiences binding them together involved eating Raman noodles and drinking Natural Light instead of learning how to be an eco-warrior and venerating Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed? Is it wise to be alert during microeconomics class at Wellesley when the professor, as she admits on her website, practices "feminist/radical pedagogy"? Is going to that class going to help young adults contribute to society?

Harvard students might benefit more from their time spent at John Harvard's microbrewery rather than paying attention to lectures on ecology and homophobia in "Black Womanist Theologies." They might be better off dreaming of their weekend road-trip instead of focusing during "Dreams of a Common Language: Feminist Conversations Across Difference."

At the University of California, Berkeley, students are taking "Doing Feminist Studies" and "Alternative Sexualities in a Transnational World." Surely these courses kill at least as many brain cells as a night of drinking. Berkeley also offers "Public Speaking About Diversity"--but it would probably be more fruitful to sit on the quad, watch fellow students go by, and then adjourn to the nearest Starbucks or the campus free speech zone to practice actual public speaking.

Swarthmoreans have to wait until next year to feast on "The Whole Enchilada: Debates in World History," but right now they can take "Engendering Culture" where they're supposed to learn how "culture is constructed and reconstructed to replicate gender roles," by studying "New York night life and John Wayne movies and the masculine West." It's unclear how this differs from spending a semester chilling in the Big Apple and eating cheetos in front of the tube.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a philosophy class on "sports and competition." This isn't a traditionally academic discipline, but it might be more rigorous than "Intro to Gay and Lesbian Literature." And why go to "Courtship" class, when you could go courting on Franklin Street and have real-life success? At American University you can major in American Studies and take a course called "Washington, D.C.: Life Inside a Monument." Or you could skip some of the lectures, take a "D.C. Ducks" tour, and use the extra free time for more enlightening activities.