Thus, student organizations offer distractions. “If you want to form a club devoted to solving Rubik’s Cubes or watching ‘Family Guy,’ no problem. If you want to change the world or fight global warming, no problem.”

Later, I visited Grinnell’s Web site to discover the range of club activities. There were the major food groups — Christian groups, political groups, ethnic groups, oddball sports and things I’d never heard of, like the Grinnell Monologues, which exist to “perform a collection of monologues about gender and genitalia,” and the Adventure Sewer Explorers, “dedicated to exploring sewers; good for town relations; will attempt to gather a library of material about sewer engineering.”

For the rest of our campus tour, it seemed impossible to escape student organizations: fliers and posters pinned to dorm walls, messages in chalk on sidewalks, folding tables in student unions.

Organizations have gone viral. Harvard has more than 400, up from about 250 six years ago. The University of California, Berkeley, has more than 1,000 organizations. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, estimates more than 800, with a Web site that encourages students to “Discover your passions. Bring your résumé to life.” The Web site of the College of William & Mary, which has 400 clubs, boasts “endless geekery from quiz bowl to Ping-Pong to heavy metal.”

One Sunday at a hometown hotel, my family watched a video presentation for Carnegie Mellon. After becoming acquainted with various clubs devoted to building self-propelled robot cars for Darpa field tests, an attractive student enthused about ballroom dancing. A few weeks later, the scene was repeated by a coed at Rose-Holman Institute of Technology in Indiana. Given the institute’s academic atmosphere, the video held out the promise of full body contact, a selling point for geeks and nerds and my son.

Here’s a quick quiz. What do the following have in common?

The Charles Darwin Experience

Laser Squad Bravo

Live Nude People

Gag Reflex

Awkward Silence

Roadkill Buffet

Mad Cow

Full Frontal

Immediate Gratification Players

(They are all campus improv groups.)

One student affairs officer tried to reassure me, “College is where kids try out things they’ve only seen on the Internet.” That remark covers a host of parental nightmares and a lot of neat stuff. There are clubs that challenge members to make a movie in 24 hours or write a novel in a month. In the realm of sweat, I found clubs for skateboarding, kickball, poker, Ultimate Frisbee, hacky sack and unicycling while playing the kazoo. No less competitive were dance clubs devoted to hip-hop, swing, tap, square, bhangra and baile.

Brown University has the Poler Bears, described as “psychedelic and silly, muscular and meta-performative, abstract and out there . . . and yes, it can be unabashedly, gracefully, palm-sweatingly, heart-poundingly sexy as well.” (The Poler Bears recently put on a Lady Gaga spectacular to raise money for a new pole.)

Clubs today, it seems, exist to provide stress relief and a sense of community. For many prospective students, finding a group of like-minded individuals will be the deciding factor.

Asked about the phenomenon, Harry R. Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, confessed, “I often got calls from parents who asked, ‘Why does Harvard have a mariachi band? I sent my son or daughter to Harvard to become an engineer, not to play in a mariachi band.’To which I would respond, ‘Would you rather have them go out drinking?’ ”

James R. Petersen is author of “The Century of Sex.”


Leave a Reply