Two, Three, Many Charlotte Simmonses

In a few weeks, millions of idealistic and enthusiastic teenagers will embark on or continue a time-honored and familiar American ritual: losing their religion. Granted, the rest of us don’t usually put the passage in such blunt terms. We commonly call it “going off to college.” But the facts whistle past our euphemisms.

It is true that American colleges and universities remain the envy of the world, true too that many American students will find in academia a happiness and satisfaction known nowhere else. But many, even at religious colleges, will also find the campus to be a graveyard for their morals and faith – one whose internment there will leave permanent scars, even if the owner does manage to exhume it some years or perhaps decades later. Many others, of course, will not.

Why do so many students “lose their faith,” as the going polite phrase has it, when they hit the quad? The common answer today is the secularist one: because college is where young adults learn to reject their foolish childhood ways, religion most emphatically.

Like many other exercises in self-deception, of course, this one gets the actual causality of the thing perfectly backward. Most college students do not ditch God after giving Him a good long mature think, only later to realize – mirabile dictu! – that doing so will free them up for some pretty exciting things. No, like any other people who have no problem with faith until it gets in the way of something they really, really want, most students typically run that sequence in reverse: wanting those pretty exciting things, which are available in spades on most campuses today, they go for them by first jettisoning God.

It is important to get these facts of the matter straight, I think, because many of us who are supposed to be the adults in charge today have particular reasons for wanting to deny them. Consider, for example, the provocative fact that Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece I am Charlotte Simmons – by far the most searing and true meditation out there on contemporary campus decadence – fell both critically and commercially short of the two novels preceding it. Why? Surely not for want of literary merit; the same technical brilliance, uncanny ear, and moral fearlessness are displayed there as in Wolfe’s better-received Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.

No, the same public that devoured Wolfe’s other novels resisted Charlotte for another reason: because middle-aged readers, many of them parents, found the book’s truth-telling about what their daughters and sons on campus are really up to simply unbearable. They’re not alone. “Every Saturday night,” confided a friend whose daughter was a freshman last year, “I’d think of her and worry about what she might be doing at college – and then I’d purposefully put the whole thing out of my head.” She – and a few million other mothers and fathers, too.

Yet face facts we should, because the nihilism tattooed permanently into some of those students settles not just in classrooms dedicated to the orthodoxies of post-modernism, but in the dorm rooms and common rooms where those teachings get played out up close and personal. Yes, promiscuity and binge drinking on campus are nothing new. Yes, perhaps even the hook-up culture – so critically exposed in Unprotected by campus doctor Miriam Grossman – is arguably just the old one-night stand on steroids. But what is new is that the adults in charge, on campus and off, are so passive about it all – the more so because, unlike the parents of the Baby Boomers, today’s mothers and fathers cannot claim ignorance.

Kids will be kids. Let them have their fun. I was pretty wild then, too. Who am I to say they’re wrong? And so we justify, bit by bit, our sitting this one out on the sidelines. That’s a shame, because campus is one place where much could be done, even by those not there. As Robert George among others has forcefully observed, students need alternatives to the anything-goes sexual gobbledygook – the GLBT centers and indoctrination sessions and prurient workshops in “sexual health,” etc. etc. etc.

Groups active in campus ministry – Newman Centers, local parishes, and the rest – need real help in bringing alternative speakers, publications, and ideas to campus life. As philanthropists big or small, we can also help by sending individual students or traditional-minded groups alternative literature of a different sort, such as gift subscriptions to magazines or books that deliver apologetics without apologizing. Or just send the students you know links to fellow-travelling websites, including this one.

These aren’t just shots in the dark, after all. Plenty of students, too, have misgivings about what for many is a four-year bacchanal bizarrely regarded as sacrosanct. Consider as emblematic this fact: the Anscombe Society, founded years ago at Princeton – Princeton! – has not only thrived on that campus, but inspired groups like it on other campuses too. Today these counter-cultural platoons draw on each other for mutual support (and an annual conference) under the umbrella of the Love and Fidelity network – another outstanding worthy cause, by the way.

These and other forms of student resistance go to show that the moral gig on campus is not up. It’s just underfunded and undermanned compared to the other side. In sum, there are plenty of lifelines to throw students who do not want to become the next Charlotte Simmons. But first we must lose what so many of us, perhaps out of our own self-deception and self-exculpation, seem to have acquired as a stumbling block: the despairing notion, masquerading as worldly wisdom, that Charlotte’s fate is simply inevitable. It isn’t – so let’s not allow our passivity to make it so.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a contributing writer to First Things, and a columnist for The Catholic Thing.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All right reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

  • Willie

    Suds and sex.
    After sending three kids to college, both Catholic and secular, this article rings with familiarity. Is it any wonder that 50% of students on college campuses have sexually transmitted disease. To think that one pays for four years of sex and booze ad lib, and to learn that there is no such thing as truth! And ,Quite a price to find out there is no reality.. To me this reflects the nihilsm of postmodern academia and the job oriented curricula of most colleges. In the future what results? Look!

  • John McCarthy

    Mary Eberstadt is addressing here a huge issue that deserves in depth discussion. As the father of four recent collegians (two at Catholic schools; two at state universities) I am certain that for us, the problem began long before college..We failed to engage them in their teen years so that the game was lost (hopefully not forever) long before they went to college…

  • Grateful Student

    I have the Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas to thank for teaching me the truth durring difficult (and dangerous) times. Thousands of others have been so helped. These organizations deserve whatever support we can provide!

  • BillyG

    John hit the nail right on the head – how they’re going to act in college is decided way before they show up at the dorm. So parents should take responsibility for their own kids and stop trying to blame someone else. Willie, you’re a perfect example of a parent blaming everyone except the person REALLY responsible.

  • Austin Ruse


    You are a master. This is a great column and as I ponder the future of Lucy and Gigi (classes of 2027 and 2030) i shudder. There is a choir of evil surely circling around them waiting to pounce. Yikes. How did i get into this?! I guess that’s what you get for cooperating with His will! Yikes indeed.


  • Becky

    Nice play on words in paragraph 2 but the word is “inter” not “intern”. So I think ‘Interment” should replace “Internment”….being picky, quite picky, and non-substantive.

  • Elizabeth

    Perhaps at colleges and universities like Holy Cross and Georgetown, Newman Centers could be established. Just a thought. In the meantime, a donation is being sent to Princeton’s Newman Center. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Bill Daugherty

    Re: Charlotte Simmons
    “But the facts whistle past our euphemisms.”

    My good friend, Garnet Pike, when he was also my pastor, would sometimes interrupt a sermon in which he thought he had made a salient point without sufficient “amens” from us to exclaim, “That’s good preachin’, PIke!” I’ll paraphrase him here: that’s good writing, Eberstadt!!

  • Willie

    Reply to BillyG
    Thank you for the compliment. My children all turned out very well. I will with my wife,indeed, take some responsibility for where it REALLY belongs They are all practicing Catholics and my daughter is married and I have a grandchild. My friend, sexual promiscuity and drinking is so pervasive on college campuses that the student on his own for the first time easily succumbs to peer pressure. To postulate that the current behaviour on campuses is a result of parental failure is a leap of logic

  • Sean Smith

    No question that foundations are laid at home. However, a bad structure can be built on a solid foundation, eventually ruining the foundation. My son went off to a Catholic college, where the Jesuit president told the parents “Your job is done. We’ll take care of it from here.” Well, they certainly took care of it alright; kid hasn’t seen a church since.

  • Pangloss

    To my mind, Eberstadt at the end sounds nearly as complacent and unrealistic as the parents she criticizes. The Anscombe Society as a realistic solution? It has maybe 50 members, at one university. You’ve got to be kidding me. Why no mention of the time-honored American solution of consumer choice? As if we must send our children to such places. Here’s a rewrite of Wolfe’s novel: in ch. 1 Charlotte is told about the Anscombe Society at her university. The story ends the same way.

  • Mark

    The answer likely lies with the colleges we help our children choose. We must turn our back, even to our financial detriment, on the Ivy League (I went to Yale), Georgetown, Notre Dame and the rest and focus on Christ-centered institutions such as Christendom, Steubenville and the others that advertise in places like First Things, Faith & Family, etc. Although I don’t have personal knowledge of these places yet (my children are young), I hope they thrive and develop – with our help.

  • Tom in NC

    I think our schools should focus first on the drinking problem (where Catholics schools seem worse than average). This IS a manageable problem, but it takes work (not just a pledge or information session). Eg, at Davidson (which does almost everything right), the freshman are kept apart socially from the upperclassmen for 3-4 weeks, so they can establish their own social networks before relying on the older students.

  • francis

    I taught at a Catholic High School for 4 years. Many of my students fit perfectly into this story. It is amazing to me how many former priests teach in colleges and facilitate the justification of hedonism.

  • BillyG

    I went to Holy Cross and didn’t see any problems. My brother went to a very Jesuit college and the priest even brought the beer to the baseball games for everyone. My brother didn’t see a problem with that, either! I won’t say the name of the school so as not to ruin it for anyone.

  • adam

    Two points of full agreement. A) it starts at home, and B) extremely disriminating choice in selecting a school.

    I would add C), train your children to understand the fundamental importance of seeking out and attracting good, high-quality individuals as friends, and themselves being good companions. This starts when they are 8, not 18.

    Along w/ a healthy dose of the Theo. of the Body, a strong group of good (morally good) friends is the ark in which one might weather the storm.

  • Tom Borek

    Some of the very best (non-Catholic) parents I know have fallen into the trap of accepting the inevitability of dangerous immorality during the college years. This is a subject that deserves much more attention than it is getting.

  • Thibaud

    Sed contra
    I became a church-going Catholic again during my year as an exchange student in a US college (I’m French). This may have been the result of the utter disgust I felt witnessing the moral state of US colleges. I used to fantazise about the National Guard invading the campus on Friday and Saturday nights and rounding up all students guilty of drug abuse, underage drinking and statutory rape. Campus would have been a pretty peaceful place afterwards.