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A hard lesson to be learned from student life these days

Barrett Seaman has written a book sure to horrify any parent of a current or future college student. That said, "Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You" is an important work that adroitly critiques the current state of higher education in this country.

"Binge" reads like a "Fast Food Nation" -- Eric Schlosser's expose of the fast-food industry -- set amid the ivy-clad walls and Doric columns of this nation's residential college campuses.

An alumnus and trustee of Hamilton College in Clinton, the former Time magazine reporter visited 12 selective colleges in North America for his book. He lived in student housing whenever he could, attended class, and talked at length to students, faculty and staff.

Seaman didn't completely throw himself into the bacchanalia, a la gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but he documents it thoroughly.

He paints a depressing picture of the current state of academia -- an age of "disconnection and excess" -- backed up by extensive interviews, on-the-scene reporting and data.

Students today, Seaman contends, study less, particularly in the traditional liberal-arts canon, but earn better grades. They seem busier and feel more pressure to succeed -- even depression -- but have less of a sense of activism than students of a previous generation.

He astutely sums up how much modern technology is changing how college students live, learn and interact.

Sex on campus is a different story today than it was in the time when Seaman was at Hamilton. Women are just as likely as men to initiate sex, few college students formally date and it's all about finding someone to hook up with for the night.

Libidos aren't the only thing inflated on college campuses these days, apparently. Seaman found average grades are on the rise, and many more students are graduating with honors. Interestingly, there is more grade inflation at the more selective institutions, and this is happening as data show students are spending fewer hours studying.

The most disturbing parts of "Binge" look at student depression, date rape and the rising and more casual use of alcohol.

He persuasively makes the case that, while a good number of students are choosing not to drink, students today who do drink are drinking to excess.

Seaman writes that, when he was at Hamilton, he knew of one student who overdosed on alcohol in his four years there. Today, four students can overdose over a good weekend at a midsized college.

Students drink in their room before they go out, a ritual known as pregaming; they drink as much as they can as early in the evening as possible, in private; and, as anyone who's been in the University Heights can tell you, they start the weekend on Thursday.

Seaman makes reference in his book to Scott Krueger, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman from Orchard Park who died in 1997 during a fraternity initiation.

The author was in a fraternity at Hamilton, so he looks fondly on the Greek system despite its shabby reputation today.

Here he mentions the "University of Buffalo," and quotes two anonymous sorority members on the insular nature of Greek life there.

This is the only mention of a Western New York college, and an odd choice at that because the Greek system is not a particularly strong presence at UB.

There are only a few weaknesses in Seaman's book, most notably an emphasis on elite, residential colleges that leaves out the large number of students who attend community colleges, for-profit colleges or go to school part-time.

Seaman does offer suggestions on how to improve the college experience.

In a controversial stance, he suggests lowering the drinking age, arguing that raising it to 21 didn't curb drinking by 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds -- it just moved it off campus and into private rooms.

Also, and quite sensibly, he calls for boosting ties between faculty and students and giving students more control over their own destiny.

"It's OK to help them grow up, but don't prevent them from growing up," he writes.

Stephen T. Watson previously covered higher education for The News.



What Your College Student Won't Tell You

By Barrett Seaman

Wiley, 283 pages, $25.95

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