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What guidance do you have for a gentlefreshman starting college?
Thank you for your letter.
The first part of the first rule of campus behavior—Don’t do anything egregiously stupid—is sometimes difficult for an 18-year-old to obey, so he really needs to memorize the second part of the first rule of campus behavior: Try to learn something from the egregiously stupid thing you have done. This process is sometimes referred to as education.
That’s the basic idea. I further encourage first-year students to see what they can glean from my notes on a select handful of colleges.
Harvard College offers an accredited four-year program within a private research university seated near the Charles River. Though Harvard does not rank as our most gentlemanly place of higher learning—a distinction ruled out by the boorishness of president emeritus Lawrence Summers—it is our oldest and boasts the most powerful brand name. Thus, handing down to its undergraduates a rule about acquiring clothes reflective of school pride and pridefulness, I hope to influence their peers across the nation.
Harvardians: You may tastefully own three (3) pieces of clothing emblazoned with the Harvard name—one (1) T-shirt, one (1) sweatshirt, and one (1) further item stocked at the Coop, such as a knit cap or a pair of running shorts. You may nonchalantly wear only one (1) of these at any given moment. You may tastefully own additional pieces of H-bomb-irradiating athletic gear only if you are a member of a particular team exalted thereon and not just some kind of poser. If you need to ask whether the new Harvard-branded, Boston-accented “Wicked Smaaht” T-shirt is at all tasteful, then I need to wonder whether you are in fact intelligent enough to merit acceptance to Bunker Hill Community College.
Princeton University was founded in 1746 as a finishing school, more or less, and almost accidentally became academically excellent two centuries later. Until recently, it was alone among the members of its athletic conference—the Ivy League, that mirage of an institution before which the citizenry is senselessly destined to tremble—in maintaining a student-run Honor Code, one requiring students to report any suspicion that a classmate has cheated on an in-class test. Thus, the exam rooms of Old Nassau are some of the few places where it is not just appropriate but necessary for a gentleman to fink on his friends. Tigers, please heed the story of the alumnus who, long after graduation, while reminiscing with chums about youthful misdeeds, confessed to having cheated on an exam, and was promptly ratted out.
Also, buy a tuxedo, for God’s sake. Princeton men have perhaps half a dozen opportunities to wear one each year. Though it is no longer considered gauche to wear your interview suit to formal dances, doing so will cause distress to a garment intended to impress authority figures by the broad light of day. For the monkey business of your social life, you want to invest in a monkey suit that can take a lot of wear and tear. Talk to a tailor about reinforcing its seams and consider an application of Scotchgard Outdoor Water Shield.
Other colleges are good, too, sometimes, and America’s three remaining all-male secular colleges place a special emphasis on shaping their boys into gentlemen.
Upon matriculation, each student at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College receives To Manner Born, to Manners Bred: A Hip-pocket Guide to Etiquette for the Hampden-Sydney Man, a volume often cited by those (such as the authors of True Prep, the 2010 sequel to The Official Preppy Handbook) who name this college as the preppiest in these United States. This may sounds obnoxious to some, but the etiquette guide’s emphasis on universal cordiality is unimpeachable and its wardrobe advice thoroughly sound: “Quality is not always synonymous with cost; quality is made into a garment, not bestowed upon it by the attachment of a designer’s logo.” This simple lesson is far more valuable than anything one is likely to “learn” in a gut class at Yale.
The existence of To Manner Born … obviates the need to give advice to Hampden-Sydney guys. Y’all already know that you’ll be wearing coats and ties to football games—and because the college’s most famous former student is William Henry Harrison, I trust you understand the importance of wearing layers in cold weather. Further, because your most distinguished living former student is Stephen Colbert, I expect you to appreciate satire and to have a sense of humor about your school’s appearance in a classic Spy article titled “Colleges of the Dumb Rich”: “[A]s the alma mater of a host of distinguished current and former senators, Hampden-Sydney can rightfully consider itself a spawning ground for members of Dumb Richdom’s pinnacle organization.” Please console yourselves with the knowledge that, according to Spy’s math, your “dumb rich quotient” is significantly lower than that of Bennington or Bard.
Then there’s the historically black college in Atlanta where people make an uppercase distinction between the students who merely graduate—men who went to Morehouse—and those who graduate fully molded in the image of their creator: Morehouse Men. In theory, this is the noble epitome of every college’s branding mission. “The prototype of the Morehouse Man comes to typify one who not only successfully navigates the institutional process but also embodies it,” a study once put it. In practice, it is tricky; the same author describes this model of masculinity as mythic and thus unattainable. In any case, any aspiring Morehouse Man, trying to be a gentleman, will not stoop to respond to the regular insult of his inclusion on GQ’s list of America’s douchiest colleges: “Is it possible to be in the International Leadership Program while also being president of Alpha Phi Alpha while also getting all militant about the white power structure while also promoting a biweekly hip-hop showcase? Yes? Then you’re just barely keeping up with the status quo at Morehouse—good luck getting into Yale Law!”
Morehouse calls on students to be “well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced,” and its administrators support a dress code that makes sense to me, particularly in forbidding wearing pajamas in public, a practice we must rightfully regard as barbaric, reserving an exception only for Julian Schnabel.
Next up: Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Not long ago, I found myself sipping tall, cool drinks with one its alumni, who taught me that the school’s code of conduct is a one-liner, the Gentleman’s Rule: “The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” This Little Giant and I wondered for a while about the existential and semantic perplexities of this rule: Is this another unattainable ideal? How to interpret this rule, in the 21st century, in the absence of a popular understanding of gentlemanliness? He shook his head trying to square the implications of the rule with the sad drunken death of a Wabash freshman in 2008, the only bright spot of which was the thoughtfulness and civility of the debate it generated.
I should also note two all-male colleges that grant associate’s degrees. California’s Deep Springs College is great if you prefer livestock to party animals, and Pennsylvania’s Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trade is perfect if you like the idea of a campus full of dudes getting full scholarships to learn useful stuff. The latter deserves special mention for giving vocational studies their property dignity—and for running a used-clothing store to help broke students meet the dress code of “a sport coat, dress slacks, dress shirt, tie and polished dress shoes.”
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rounds out this list because it is one of the excellent public schools that make America great. Here’s the student code. Here are the Daily Illini’s tips on dressing for a Greek formal. Here’s what the school offers liberal arts types who dread fulfilling the science requirement: a first-rate atmospheric science department. Don’t get me wrong. Guts on the order of Physics for Poets are godsends, and anyone attending a school with a strong geology department, generously endowed by alumni who feel guilty for having made a killing in the petroleum business, simply must investigate its exotic field trips, but Introduction to Meteorology prepares you to go out into the world and make small talk about the weather without being dull as rain.