The Kids are Not All Right

A professor writes,

Is it possible that we are all underestimating the extent of the depravity on today's campuses?
I think most professors and parents make it their business not to think about the question. They feign shock with the lives students actually live are described. The professor at the residential college who complains about students who are hung-over or actually drunk must be joking. Those descriptions of the “hook-up culture” are just envy and voyeurism. The mothers and fathers upset because their child is being tormented by a roommate who is sexiling him, dealing drugs out of the room, or half-crazy from roid-ragea are just the helicopter parents. But I think that there is a real problem, one that we are too squeamish to look at the problem and too lazy to fix it.

Let’s look at two works by authors who belong to different generations, display different sensibilities, and are celebrated by different sorts of readers. During the last decade, both Tom Wolfe and Jeffrey Eugenides have written novels that depict undergraduate life at elite institutions. Wolfe based his work on reporting. Eugenides perhaps drew more on his own experience. I am Charlotte Simons is a sprawling social novel. The Marriage Plot is a narrow exploration of character. But the picture of campus life I, at least, took from the two novels was not that different. The top ten university still has students who are excited by ideas and ernest in their curiosity, though they share the place with people focused on having a good time in the moment or preparing to get rich as quickly as possible. But all the students live in settings that are filthy and chaotic and they all move in society’s where sexual exploitation of one kind or another is almost the default mode of human interaction. Even the characters we come to like best are adrift and seem likely to be entering what should be adulthood without having become cultured or principled, no matter how well they have mastered some narrow body of knowledge.

Let me start by suggesting part of our problem is that we live with a lie that we cannot admit to and cannot act on. That whopper is that students of traditional college age are adults. No culture of the past has thought they are. (21 was the traditional age of majority for reasons other than numerology.) Our auto insurance companies don’t think they are. Our legislators cease to pretend they are when writing their counter-productive drinking laws. Our new health care law says that they are dependent children until eight years after they have started voting. And brain scientists say that the brain doesn’t reach adult development until about 25.

We decided to stop acting on the evidence in a fit of bad conscience over sending children to early deaths in Vietnam. (Note that there was no similar reaction to earlier drafts, since they applied to all men of military age. During World War II a bachelor in a non-exempt occupation could be called up in his early 40’s.) That some young men were being put under the supervision of drill sergeants and turned into canon-fodder was hardly a justification for removing all restraints from luckier young people, but our society was not acting rationally just then.

The colleges and universities that used to act in loco parentis have given up that part of the job. Alma Mater has found better things to do with her time and left the kids to amuse themselves with the keys to the liquor cabinet and a building full of mattresses.

Unsupervised children tend to behave badly. They torment each other. They drink irresponsibly. They don’t clean their rooms or get up in the morning. They have sex without a thought to consequences.

In the past adults handled this fact in two ways. First, they taught young people that their impulses were more likely to be wicked than innocent. Second, they did not leave them to their own devices. Boys, such as the undergraduates at Oxbridge colleges, lived among adults, who could keep an eye on them. Girls had duennas or their unpaid equivalents. And the institution of “chaperone” remained alive, well, and wide awake.

Those days are now gone, of course. If an adult other than a custodian enters a college dormitory it is a rare event. (The “house mother” is long gone.) Having no adult models for adult behaviors, such as drinking responsibly or flirting or courting respectfully, the students blunder through situations that are difficult at all ages or use the chaos as a chance to prey on the weak, ignorant, or intoxicated.

I don’t think this situation is good for education in any sense. And I think that if things are going to improve, professors will need to take a real part in campus life. As many as possible should actually live on campus. Others should regularly dine with the students. (And the students should eat together at set times, not in the various snacking venues universities have created despite their claims to value “community.”) The student activities offices should be closed and the their functions transferred back to the faculty.

I would, of course, also like to see college students treated as minors again, though I would also like to allow 18-year-olds to drink legally so that they could do it with adult supervision.

We do have a problem. It was caused by generations of adults who wanted to remain kids while having the rights of grown-ups, and who have failed to act as “pastors and masters” to students who desperately need someone to set some limits, sometimes on their own behavior, sometimes on that of those who make campus life a nightmare for the responsible and eager students.