Author discusses history of unruly students, medieval beer bongs

By Lindsay Carroll

It was an ironic Friday evening for many freshmen who attended a professor’s lecture on unruly… It was an ironic Friday evening for many freshmen who attended a professor’s lecture on unruly college students throughout history.

University of Oregon history professor Ian McNeely spoke to almost 2,000 people on Friday night at Carnegie Music Hall. Most of the audience was comprised of Pitt freshmen whose attendance at “Nine Hundred Years of Unruly Students” was mandatory because the Office of Freshman Programs required students taking Introduction to Arts and Sciences to read McNeely’s book.

McNeely spoke over constant chatter from the audience. Some students waved their cell phones to spell words, others laughed loudly or shouted, and more than half of the students rushed out of the theater immediately after the lecture, skipping the question-and-answer session.

At one point, McNeely paused and waited for the freshmen to stop talking, but otherwise ignored what he said might have been the unruliest crowd he had addressed.

“I felt it would almost be hypocritical of me for calling them out on it,” McNeely said after the lecture.

The lecture, accompanied by a PowerPoint slideshow, addressed the changing moral and intellectual mission of institutions of higher learning in the Western tradition. McNeely discussed universities from medieval times to the 18th and 19th centuries and today.

Audience members seemed surprised by some activities McNeely described, such as medieval binge drinking. He showed a drawing from the Middle Ages that depicted an academic laying on his back using a device that looked like a beer bong.

At research universities in Germany during the 1800s, administrators encouraged physical activity because they believed reading could be addictive — much like surfing the Internet today, McNeely said.

He said one journalist wrote that reading could cause heat rash, gout, arthritis, migraines and epilepsy, among other conditions.

After World War II, when many universities became co-educational, men broke into female dorms and stole their underwear. It was an epidemic of panty raids, McNeely said.

Despite the atmosphere of the crowd, McNeely said he felt flattered to speak at Pitt. He said his book “Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet” has been used in the Office of Freshman Programs in ways he “never even dreamed of.”

The book, coauthored by McNeely’s wife, Lisa Wolverton, examines intellectuals and knowledge systems in the Western tradition.

Students in the classes participated in essay contests and Scrabble games to supplement the book, McNeely said.

Laura Dice, the director of Office of Freshman Programs, said that although the students were “rude, not just unruly” during the lecture, the purpose of the program is acquaint freshmen with the University.

The department hopes to ease the transition into college for the 1,700 people enrolled in Freshman Programs classes, as well as school them in the opportunities Pitt offers, Dice said.

Meaghan Beckner, an exercise science major, said the class was helpful and introduced students to programs at Pitt.

“Most people probably wouldn’t go out and find things on their own. It’s worth it,” she said.