The fall brings with it an annual crop of eager-eyed scholars embarking on what is surely their first extended departure from the three square meals, perpetual laundry service and rent-free abode living that parents provide. College is a sanctuary – a supposed institution of “higher learning” – nurturing those tender-headed 18-year-olds with the perfect amount of sodium-laced meals, pressure, and promise of six-figure salaries when departing, that still makes a college degree more of a necessity than a luxury for today’s young pups. With every incoming freshman class more well-versed and tuned in to the latest bits of technological advancements and spoon-fed bits of pop culture, comes the added pressure of being better and more informed than the last. The latest example comes from the recent application at Tufts University which asked potential applicants the following question:
The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase “Carpe diem.” Jonathan Larson proclaimed “No day but today!” and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?
That’s right, along side the notion of “Carpe diem” comes mention of Drake’s warbling of #YOLO (hashtag and all) from his song “The Motto.” Teachers and administrators have always relied on certain ploys to try and identify with a group of people from a different age group, but the hyper-specific mention of a piece of popular culture as a means of identifying potential thought leaders of tomorrow seems rather forced. Sure, there are other questions that can be answered, but the inclusion of “YOLO” seems to insinuate that the younger generation’s contributions to academia will be purely superficial.
The Tufts University prompt comes just prior to the recent announcement of the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University – with an aim to “seek projects from scholars and artists that build on the rich and complex hip-hop tradition; to respect that tradition through historically grounded and contextualized critical insights; and most important, to represent one’s creative and/or intellectually rigorous contribution to hip-hop and the discourse through personal and academic projects.” The culture clash of hip-hop culture and academics isn’t a new phenomenon, with notable hip-hop culture alums like KRS One, 9th Wonder and DJ Afrika Bambaataa all contributing in various facets at Ivy League schools. Schools like Duke, Florida St., Cornell, and Harvard all have classes akin to “Sociology of Hip-Hop,” while Arizona took it a step further by allowing students to actually minor in hip-hop – becoming the first school to offer such a major and saying of the course work, “This is all material culture, and from that perspective, it’s just as legitimate to study hip-hop as it is to study Baroque art or quilting. Material culture always tells you something about the people who made it. It’s always part of the fabric of humanity.”
Of course, there are major opponents to the minor created by Alaine-Philippe Durand. Daniel Asia, a UA professor and composer of classical music, called the hip-hop minor “a trendy addition to the curriculum” that cheapens the university’s reputation as a place of serious study. At the time, Stephen Colbert weighed in on Twitter by saying, “The University of Arizona is offering a Minor in Hip-Hop. And if you go on to grad school, you can get your Doctorate in Dre.” There’s no denying that hip-hop transcends a genre of music, but has it become such an accepted part of society that simple knowledge of top 40 radio must be had despite the absence of proof of a student’s intentions of diving into that culture even further with course work?
Part of the genius of Kanye West’s The College Dropout is that it took a biting look at the state of higher education – with his “School Spirit Skit” mocking the perpetual knowledge influx that can make a braniac act like an addict.
People and specifically Fortune 500 companies are often criticized for what purists would call the exploitation of hip-hop. It seems like “urban” is at the top of every RFP (request for pitch) when a company is looking to target that ever elusive 18-35 demographic who just so happened to become fans of hip-hop as capitalism was joining the other four elements: graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing and DJing. In the case of the Nas Fellowship at Harvard, there seems to be an indication of empowerment for the culture, while Tufts seems to invoke a double edged sword of mockery – laughing at the ridiculous process that is applying to college while snickering that while “you only live once,” you’re stuck with student loans for eternity.
On a personal level, after I was finished with college with a degree that many would argue isn’t necessarily one that prepares you for the workforce, it took several years of struggling and a few triumphs before I could truly appreciate that 4+ years of my life. Those years mark a period where you’re in a creative and independent sweet spot – far enough removed from mom and dad to really learn about independence – yet not facing the pressure of earning an income that justifies the high costs of tuition. It seems that aside from a few majors that have a dictated and laid out path with a rock solid end game, college has become less a place to learn a trade and more an advanced enrichment destination for hobbyists. As Russell Simmons once said, “The thing about hip-hop is that it’s from the underground, ideas from the underbelly, from people who have mostly been locked out, who have not been recognized.” The steady influx of hip-hop ideals into higher education indicates that there is an exclusion for the culture, while simultaneously excluding those who can’t take their passion to an intellectual zenith.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_