Sean Michael Green, the new author of The Things I Learned In College, loves the Ivy League more than you did when you watched Legally Blonde for the first time. Admitting that with his high school grades he could not have gotten into a good school, he joined the Marine Corps. After leaving service, he went on to pursue higher education degrees, including a Master of Arts from Penn, if only “for the sheer challenge of it.” He also pursued a Master of Law at Cornell, but that wasn’t enough for Green. In a sabbatical–type project, he spent the year 2005 as a guest at all eight Ivy League schools.
Green summarizes his experiences in his book The Things I Learned in College: A Year with the Ivy League. Notebook in hand (and he makes it very clear that notebook goes with him everywhere, in case you were wondering how he remembers all that detail), he spends one month on each campus, except Penn. For Penn, thirty days and one chapter wasn’t enough (we agree). He first visits Penn on Valentine’s Day and, just like your hangover, returns on Saint Patrick’s Day. Sean compares his fandom of Ivy League schools to people who root for football teams. “And I watch football, too,” he promises. “College football.". His sports analogy seems appropriate considering the play–by–play style of his book and a significant number of fumbles within its pages.
The sixth chapter, titled “Penn,” reads like a transcript of coffee chats with characters he meets through mutual friends, although it seems like these people have escaped the set of a TLC show. From Barry, the most offensive kid to ever be accepted into Kite and Key, to Sorority Girl #1 and Sorority Girl #2, whose only interests are “judging people” and commenting on others’ lack of designer clothing, Green pencils in his notebook a misguided portrayal of who a Penn student is. His social experience is determined by one party–the only party he attends in his first 30 days at Penn–at a co–ed “non–descript” fraternity on “Pine Street,” AKA Pi Lam. His city experience is defined by getting a perfectly legal parking ticket, in which he sarcastically remarks, “How dare I say that I didn’t have a good experience at Penn just because I received parking tickets!” (Ed note: how is this relatable when most of us don’t have cars on campus?). His attempt to make the reader laugh at a ridiculous guided tour undermines the hard work that so many of our most outgoing and engaging personalities put into getting perspective families excited about the academic programs Penn has to offer.
The eighth chapter, titled “Penn Again,” is an apology. For someone who doesn’t attend the University, Green is lucky to fall into a number of good experiences his second time around. He is fortunate enough to end up at the Mask and Wig clubhouse, writing a rather delayed applause, “To the cast and crew associated with the show: Bravo!” He is invited to an intimate St. Patty’s party on a HamCo rooftop where he realizes “Thus, it is the off–campus nightlife with like–minded friends that makes Penn so special.” Despite the highlights, however, the damage control is too little, too late.
He starts off his second chapter about Penn with the Daily Pennsylvanian critique of the blog he used to chronicle his adventures at the time. Shockingly, Green found the DP’s resignations with his attitude about Penn “melodramatic.” He did, however, praise the article for its wit. Green’s opinions on negative reviews might have stayed in his “travelogue,” but he decided to include them in the final book: a power move.
“A few people wondered what grudge I was carrying or what axe I was grinding. Surely, I was out to get Penn from the get–go. How could I compare an urban campus like Penn to a rural one like Dartmouth? Where was my journalistic integrity?”
Anything negative criticism of the project that follows the publication of The Things I Learned in College is now in danger of falling into the category of just another misunderstood review. We reject that.
The most notable concern comes before a reader even opens the book. On the front cover, The Publishers Daily Reviews comments, “Prospective Ivy League Students–and all those who ever wondered about everyday like at these revered institutions–won’t be disappointed.”
As people who have had the opportunity to spend more than two months at Penn, and to write about it, we don’t understand why the cover invites teenagers and their parents to search within this book for advice about what, or who, they will encounter in those pivotal four years. Green admits that as a thirty–year–old stranger, his account of student life is completely subjective, prefacing, “The project would not be about the lives of college students, but rather about the life of one odd person observing the lives of college students.” Since he doesn’t shy away from the first–person, some lines come as slightly alarming.
“Some of my best moments at Dartmouth were spent similarly, as the only male witnessing a private event in a sorority.”
Even though we can appreciate some blatant honesty, some of the phrases used to describe students are worrisome, calling girls involved in Greek life that he meets “superficially attractive.” We seem to have stumbled upon a personal diary that makes for an unfortunate generalization of the student population.
Even more dangerous is when Green has Penn students generalizing themselves. He writes about a student who “proudly referred to himself as a HRP pronounced `herp’ – a high-rise person.” He quotes a girl stating, “Our sorority admits both Christians and Jews. Some places don’t.”
We’re hoping either Penn has come a long way since 2005 or he met his interviews off of Craig’s List, but we’re not sure how Green’s unconventional description of the University of Pennsylvania should fit into the increasingly popular literature about millennials and higher education when it’s published on April 12th.