The Corner

Education

Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus — As Relevant as Ever after 18 Years

One of the first and still among the most influential books on higher education I have read is Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus, published in 2000. It was a sharp exposé of the follies at many of our colleges and universities and especially valuable coming from someone who describes himself as a liberal in the contemporary sense. Later, I invited Sperber to speak at two events hosted by the old Pope Center and he also wrote an excellent article for us on how most schools ignore student writing.

In today’s Martin Center article, our intern, Joe Warta, reflects on Beer and Circus as it relates to his own college experiences. He explains that it hardly relates at all — but that’s because Warta went to a community college. He argues that Sperber’s book makes a pretty good case for attending a community college instead of one of the alcohol and sports besotted institutions that draw most postsecondary students.

Warta writes,

One of Sperber’s main approaches was to categorize students into four groups to illustrate many of his points. They are:

  • Academics, who focus on their studies;
  • Collegiates, who are interested in parties and sports more than attending class;
  • Vocationals, who see college as a ticket to a job; and
  • Rebels, who protest and focus on activism over assignments.

While this model may describe large public universities, such as the Indiana University where Sperber taught, it is less useful for community colleges. There, collegiates and rebels are more or less nonexistent — the party and political scenes are anemic on campus. Vocationals, however, dominate campus and academics have a considerable presence as well. But there are quite a few students of another category that Sperber missed: the “explorer.” I saw lots of students who are unsure of what they want to do and who are using their time at school to figure it out.

Warta also notes that community-college classes are mostly taught by full-time faculty, not grad students and adjuncts. And you don’t get the huge lecture sessions you find at many colleges and universities. Perhaps most important of all, students aren’t distracted with the party culture that causes so many college students educational and physical trouble.

I’m glad that Warta read Sperber’s book, and I recommend it to everyone who cares about the education our young people are getting.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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