An American in Durham: The Secret Life of American Universities
It seems as though the air in lecture halls and my college corridor has suddenly altered. “Wow, it’s so peacefully quiet,” I think, ignorantly. But the quiet has little to do with peace: it is, in fact, essay-writing time. As I face the first round of formative essays for my English literature tutorials, I can sympathize with those writing formative and summative essays in the Arts and Social Sciences, though I don’t pretend to understand what the engineers at St. Aidan’s do. I must admit that I’m excited to start writing essays. You may dismiss my enthusiasm because I’m a first-year, the essays are formative and I have the least contact hours of any course, but honestly, these essays seem like a privilege.
What drugs have the English department given me for propaganda purposes? None in fact, I am just on a high after escaping my country’s university system. Although U.S. universities and colleges are often identified as some of the best in the world, the Liberal Arts system is not for me. Almost all undergraduate programs in the U.S. centre on a core curriculum of Maths, Sciences, Languages and Civic courses. An English major will spend their first two years at university taking Calculus, Biology or Physics, conversational French and a history course called, “How the Cold War, Lucille Ball and Elvis Presley transformed American culture.” Not that I dislike discussing baguettes or Desi Arnez, but knowing that I’d rather be studying Jane Eyre and Ibsen, it’s difficult to get enthused about Meiosis.
America places the ideal of the “well-rounded” student on a pedestal. Though this form of intellect is definitely attainable, as I’ve seen in my friends at Harvard, Princeton and many other prestigious US universities, Liberal Arts is not for everyone. It is surely important to develop an awareness of different subjects and be able to think creatively and logically, but personally, I am much more motivated to learn and research when asked to develop my own interests within course material.
In other ways, the US universities I toured are quite similar to Durham. Teacher’s Aides are graduate students that assist professors and also help students in large lecture classes, like Tutors. Resident Assistants fulfil the dual role of Freps and welfare committees, except that instead of getting you drinks during Freshers’ week, they are required to search your room for hidden bottles every weekend.
This brings us to the single greatest difference between UK and US universities: students’ consumption of alcohol. Everyone does it, but the cultures are completely different. The drinking age has in fact, been one of my favourite aspects of coming to the UK, although it presented a slight culture shock, I have loved the relaxed attitude. On the other hand, or side of the pond, Freshers’ week does not exist.
When I skyped my American friends and began telling them of the pub crawls and that one unmentionable thing I did during Fresher’s Week, I saw my actions through different lenses. I suddenly felt that my behaviour had been sketchy, trashy even. But why should I have felt ashamed when my fellow students, both at Durham and in the US, were also drinking?
The guilt was a result of American stereotypes and stigmatisms for underage drinking. As mentioned earlier, students with alcohol have to hide it from searches, buy it illegally or obtain it by circumlocution. Feelings of guilt would be inherent even for Nietzsche. With this Prohibition-like culture comes a similar backlash: rather than drinking at a bar at a somewhat moderated pace, students may do up to fifteen shots in their room within ten or fifteen minutes, before heading to a party. Beer is usually available at college frat parties, but there are no other options if you’re not a fan. The drinking culture is slightly different here in the UK, although there are drinking games, the point is usually to relax and have a good time. Whereas in the US, the goal is to get plastered as quickly as possible and then hide the evidence – not what I would enjoy after a week of lectures!
Of course there are exceptions to my generalization: my cousin had wine and cheese parties in her dorm. Alternatively, others have been known to get their fix by letting vodka seep into gummy worms, which are then ‘innocently’ consumed. Having savoured both, I would recommend the wine and cheese, even if you are lactose-intolerant.
It’s not so much a matter of what one can get away with, but how society makes young adults feel about actions that should, logically, be legal and socially acceptable. Although my country calls itself “the land of the free”, I chose to come to Durham because I would have more liberty, both in my education and the pursuit of happiness outside the lecture hall.