Q and A with Andy Ferguson about his bestseller Crazy U
Andy Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has written a whimsical and fascinating book, Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. It has received superlative reviews including one from The Post. I confess my bias since Andy is a friend, but in this case the reviews don't quite capture Andy's ability to combine parental angst with serious sociological analysis. It's also, as is all of Andy's writing, a great and funny read.
Andy was good enough to take time to do a Q and A with him. As you will see, even his answers are funny:
1. At what part in your nightmarish experience did you decide to write the book?
It happened pretty early on -- early on for our family anyway. (I soon discovered that for some families "early on" in the college admissions process means "third grade.") These voluptuous brochures began appearing in our mailbox addressed to my 16-year-old son -- gorgeous albums of color photographs printed on paper as thick and slick as a leaf from a rubber plant. He was being solicited by schools as shamelessly as a sailor in dry dock. Soon we had hundreds of these "viewbooks" sloshing around the house. It was hard evidence of something I'd heard about but never seen firsthand: that college admissions had become absurdly elaborate, expensive, competitive and overthought.
And it was something that could only happen in America. You don't see this in Canada or France or England. Here there's a perfect storm of national traits, if you'll forgive the cliché, that create the college madness: financial wealth, class insecurity, the promise of social mobility, unabashed commercialism, professional ambition, a kind of deep-seated utilitarianism and of course -- the truly lethal ingredient -- our doting love for our children. I liked the idea that the process was uniquely American in its excess and insanity, and I liked the idea that it was totally puzzling -- nobody could tell me how things got so far out of hand. So I decided to find out for myself.
2. What was your son's reaction?
My son's reaction to nearly everything in the process was the same: I couldn't decide whether he more closely resembled the Sphinx or one of those bodies floating face down in the water at the end of "Titanic." He was impenetrable and seemingly imperturbable. This was partly a reaction to my own rather obvious anxiety, of course. It wasn't till much later that I discovered that his dead-man's-float demeanor was purely for show; a lot more was going on in there than I knew.
3. Have you gotten complaints from colleges or any of the
leeches, er, fine professionals who work in the system?
No, it's still too early, I think, for the themes of the book to have been widely picked up and found infuriating. I have gotten some complaints about my treatment of College Confidential, reputedly the most popular college site on the web. I was unkind. The thing struck me as worse than worthless.
4. You talk about the law of constant contradictions that parents encounter in the admissions process -- so should parents ignore all the gurus and advice?
That may be the wisest course, but for certain kinds of parents (ahem) that's probably impossible. We do need to be more selective and skeptical in the kind of advice we solicit and take. The Law of Constant Contradiction states that for every plausible piece of advice a parent receives about college admissions, another equally plausible and opposite piece of advice will directly contradict it. This is particularly true on user-run Web sites like College Confidential. On the Web there's the additional difficulty of knowing whether you really should trust advice given by people who call themselves "puppywuppy" and "rodthebod69."
5. As you point out, once you deduct legacies, prospective donors' kids, athletes and diversity candidates the open slots at elite schools shrink to a precious few, yet THOUSANDS apply to these places, driving up the schools' selectivity ratings. Is this like lottery ticket purchasers -- no amount of statistics will deter otherwise bright people from believing THEY will be the lucky winner?
There's always the dream, isn't there? And the highly selective schools do everything they can to drive up the number of applications so they can continue to appear highly selective. There's really something cruel about it. Above a certain threshold of achievement -- stratospheric test scores and grades, masses of extracurricular activities, glowing recommendations -- it really does look like the lottery, at least from the outside. There's no way of knowing why some numbers come up and others don't. Of course, the process isn't governed by fate or luck. It's determined by people, admissions deans, whose motives and criteria are completely mysterious to applicants on the outside. They may be ingenious or they may be arbitrary, no one knows. It really is like a crapshoot in that way.
6. Lots of conservative parents go through anguish and drive themselves into the poorhouse to send their kids to Ivy League schools that teach notions those parents think are false, dangerous, obnoxious, etc. Why do it -- or is there no escape from the vortex of "prestige" universities?
Prestige universities are in the business of selling prestige, not education, and conservatives are no more immune to the lures of prestige than liberals. And pure prestige does have practical benefits, let's face it: It may get you a better job, or it will get you into a better graduate school, where you'll get a better job. There's method in the college madness. What's sad is when people surrender to the prestige unthinkingly. I hope my book can make those sorts of people alert to what's really going on.
7.Platitude that is the most true?
There's nothing more annoying to a nervous person than someone saying, "Relax!" If I had a dime for every time somebody told me to relax during this process, I could almost afford my son's tuition bill. But it's true, and there's data to prove it: The vast majority of kids get into schools that they really want to go to, and they're quite happy once they're there. If they're meant to have fulfilling and productive lives, where they went to school really won't make a difference. So: Relax!
Andy has also agreed to an online chat at 1 p.m. Thursday with The Post on Campus Overload, our higher education blog. If you want to ask Andy a question (or seek moral support on your journey through the college admissions process) just log on here.
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