I will be appearing on the NPR radio show Rewind this weekend as one of their resident Know-It-Alls. So if you’ve ever wanted to hear the yeti howl, this is your big chance. You can also listen to it online — my schtick begins approximately 28 minutes in.
The question I responded to was:
High school student and basketball phenom LeBron James is skipping college entirely and going straight to the NBA. And why shouldn’t he? What does college offer that fame and fortune does not?
As I see it, college has two distinct advantages over fame.
First, in college you can wholeheartedly believe any stupid idea that comes along and no one will fault you for it. People assume that whatever crazy doctrine you currently subscribe too, you’ll soon take another class or read another book that will send you off in new philosophical direction. After reading “On Walden Pond” you honestly believe that, upon graduation, you are going to renounce all your worldly possessions (except for your Phish CDs, obviously) and move to a remote cabin by a lake. And you tell your friends and family this, and they’re, like, “That’s a beautiful dream! We support you!” But inside they’re thinking “Oh well, no need to worry. Next semester he’ll take economics and be all like ‘Greed is good! Invisible hand, yo!’.”
You can’t get away with that when you’re famous. If you announce that you deeply committed to some position or another people will hold you to it forever. How many college kids, back in 2000, said they were going to move out of the country if Bush won the election? All of them, that’s how many. But no one asks them why they’re still around. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand — that poor chump is still getting grief making such threats. Unlike college students, he can’t just brush it off with a “Oh dude, whatever: I was totally stoned when I said that.” And look at Trent Lott. If he were attending a university he could have just said “Oh yeah, I was way into segregation a few weeks ago? But this semester I’m, you know, taking a class in African American history? And now I think diversity is, like, awesome!”
College is like a big roleplaying game: three times a year you get a Course Catalog and have the opportunity to completely reinvent your personality. “Okay,” you say, “I’m going to start this year with Ecology and Renaissance Literature and Nutrition,” and you’re essentially deciding, in advance, that for the next three months you’re going to be a tree-hugging Eurocentric health-nazi. You take a class on Jean-Paul Satre, mope around for a season while listening to The Smiths and declaiming about the pointlessness of life, and your buddies just shrug their shoulders and gently suggest that, next quarter, you might skip “Existentialism 102” and take Microbiology instead.
Famous people don’t have that luxury. We have these platonic ideals of celebrities — Barbara Streisand is liberal and Charlton Heston is a gun-lover and Shirley MacLaine is a nut — and we don’t like anyone messin’ with those, not even the celebrity in question. But in college you can mix ‘n’ match opinions and beliefs like Geranimals, and no one thinks twice. Bruce Willis is doomed to be Bruce Willis forever, but, in college, you can be anyone you want to be, one month at a time.
The second great thing about college is the free condoms.