Setting itself up for certain mockery, Tufts University is plopping face-first into the shallows of contemporary culture with an essay question that is revealing, more than anything, of the state of academia today.

Reports Prachi Gupta of Salon.com:

Private liberal arts college and out-of-touch dad Tufts University wants to know what “#YOLO” means to the Class of 2018. For the uninitiated, #YOLO is the horribly irresponsible acronym/hashtag/neologism coined by Drake, and stands for “You Only Live Once.” Tufts, known for its off-the-wall essay questions, provides six essay prompts, one of which asks students the following:

E) 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?

First of all, "ancient Romans" — was there another kind? — did not "start it" wholesale. The aphorism comes from one of the Odes of Horace. I don't suggest that Tufts should turn its admissions essay questions into lessons on antiquity. But that information is freely available on Wikipedia.

Second, did nobody in human history have any thoughts on the matter between 20 B.C. and the advent of Rent? Not Chaucer or Shakespeare? Nobody but a poet who lived in Rome and a librettist who lived in the East Village? Really?

That is, except for rapper Drake. Which brings us to my third objection with this question. Granted, the question is voluntary. And, moreover, colleges need not be ivory towers wholly removed from the culture of the day, even if that culture involves Justin Bieber peeing in mop buckets.

But the question is an obvious instance of pandering, of Tufts announcing that it is cool, that its admission officers get it, unlike those fusty Ivy League colleges that want you to, you know, write about some book you've read. Or whatever.

Tufts is hardly the only college that's decided to bend to popular tastes instead of actually trying to subvert them. As NYU historian Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, colleges are essentially becoming country clubs that are luring students with everything but the thing they're there for: the academics.

At the University of Arizona, a student journalist recently wrote in defense of the swank private luxury apartments catering to students. "If you're not going to an Ivy League University," he wrote, "then why not have some fun?" In high school, the journalist noted, he had attended a summer program at an Ivy school: Yale. Its stone buildings were "beautiful," he recalled, "but living in them was a nightmare."

Pithily put, and almost beautiful. YOLO — unless reincarnation really is true, in which case, oops! — so why spend your time in New Haven memorizing stuff? A New York Times story on luxury housing at the University of Missouri quoted a student who loved the lush life so much, he wanted no other kind: 

“It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”

Potential employers may look at it slightly differently, but why worry about that now? 

I should hedge my argument a little: Tufts is, after all, a top-flight university, and we are only talking about one essay question, one I am betting admissions officers are presently regretting.

But then there's the question that proceeds the YOLO one, which has me mad all over again:

D) Celebrate your nerdy side.

Your "nerdy side"? What is this, Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Revenge of the Nerds? Should I fear that my calculus book will be destroyed, my glasses trashed, by the jocks of Tufts? I don't quite see why you would go to college for any other reason than to "celebrate your nerdy side."

Then again, libraries are too quiet and classes are too hard. Maybe just spend your time butt chugging. YOLO, after all.

Photo via Associated Press.