She was wiry and whip-thin, like most of the kids who come off the ranches, and like nearly all of them, she sat a horse like a dream. I first met her when she was, I suppose, around thirteen or so—I can’t remember, exactly, but it was a few years ago, when she was helping with the horses of some friends of mine in Montana as a summer job: saddle-breaking, training the colts, currying, being the trailer on the gentle rides they’d get up for the tourists.
Each summer that I’d see her, she’d be a little more grown up—but only a little. All those kids are hard workers out west. They don’t really know how not to be. She beat her older sister in the barrel racing at the county fair one of those Augusts—which bothered her parents a little. They knew she was growing into the better rider, but they figured each of the girls ought to get a turn at the county blue ribbon and the little red and gold trophy, in plated plastic, with a cowgirl on top.
Around horses, she was calm and almost wise, an expert and a sophisticate. Around everything else, she was hopelessly naive—a country kid, wide-eyed and weak-willed. The daughter of my friends flew with her back east, last year, I think it was, to have her help drive their family car out from Long Island. And so she got to see New York City for an afternoon, a great excitement, and the ocean, too—and she told me all about it later that summer while we were riding up in the hills: her first trip away from the world she knew, the badlands and hilly prairies as they rise up from the great plains to meet the western mountains.
There are some real championship athletes on the rodeo circuit, and she wasn’t that. But she was good enough to get a minor riding scholarship to a school off on the other side of the state, joining the rodeo team of one of those big land-grant state universities that engulf midwestern and western towns. And she lasted less than a year. Three, four, maybe five months before she dropped out and turned up at home again, pregnant.
Not pretty enough to be a real target, her youth and her innocence were attractive enough to get her seduced and abandoned. She knew enough not to have an abortion—the pro-life creed is almost the only one that kids get, anymore, even out in the rural areas—but she didn’t have the sense or the character to keep it from happening in the first place, and nobody else was looking after her. She had a single talent: She sat a horse like a dream, and she thought that the school that had recruited her because of that talent would be her ticket to education and sophistication.
College let her down. I think it was David Brooks who once remarked that all college towns are the same place. He was thinking of the identical feeling that one gets in places from Berkeley, California, to Madison, Wisconsin—the similar coffee shops, the carbon-copy bookstores, the indistinguishable attitude of smug correctness. But it extends far beyond that. The identity of American universities reaches deep into their psyches—where all of them want to be Berkeley and Madison, and all of them are ashamed of being elsewhere.
Valparaiso University has a new diversity program, of which the school is proud—oh, so proud—for it makes the Lutheran Valparaiso just like every other school. A friend recently took her high-school-aged daughter to a college presentation in which the representative from Georgetown never mentioned that the school is Catholic. The University of North Dakota is ashamed of its gender-segregated dorms. Everybody at the University of Texas in Austin will tell you, shamefacedly, that even though Austin is in Texas, it’s different. And everybody at the University of Texas in El Paso will tell you that they’re really just like the folks in Austin—different from other Texans. Their school is really like the universities in California or New York, you know. No difference. No difference at all.
Even out at a minor western state university, there’s no supervision, no moral code, no help. Just the one-hour freshman orientation session that hands out condoms and vaginal dams, with a warning about AIDS. The cowgirl from the ranch—her parents wouldn’t have sent her to UC Berkeley or NYU, mostly because old reputations die hard. But they didn’t realize they were doing the rough equivalent.
The cost of a small state school’s embarrassment, of its hunger to be just like everywhere else, is paid by abortions and the knocked-up, messed-up young women who were thrown to the wolfish boys, unconstrained by either manners or morals.
The bacchanalia of the contemporary American college experience can be resisted, by young people who are strong enough and determined enough to oppose a personal code to the riot all around them. But lots of the young are not that tough. They’re weak and silly and susceptible—they’re young and uneducated, in other words—and they just want to do what everyone else is doing. In its way, that makes them just like the administrators of those colleges: weak and silly and susceptible.
And what about that girl who sat a horse like a dream and thought maybe that was enough to ride off to some bright future? She learned some lessons in college about life and its costs, and she’ll survive. All those ranch kids are survivors. They don’t really know how not to be.
But was this the only lesson our college system could give her—that people at college won’t look out for her like the people on the ranches? Is this all we have to teach?
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.