Recently I heard a sociologist sum up the anxieties of parenting in our time. On the one hand, he suggested, parents of young children are worried about how quickly their children are forced to grow up. But, on the other hand, parents of “emerging adults” are worried their children will never grow up. “10 is the new 20,” this sociologist suggested—“but so is 30.”
“10 is the new 20,” this sociologist suggested—“but so is 30.”
What many Americans are doing at age 20 is “going to college,” and since April is the month in which most students receive letters of acceptance or rejection, this week’s Culture Briefing is committed to that theme.
We begin with two pieces elucidating different features of college in America. The first, a snarky but revealing satire by Frank Bruni for the New York Times, begins by announcing that Stanford has successfully reduced its acceptance rate to an all-time low of 0%. “With no one admitted to the class of 2020,” Bruni writes, “Stanford is assured that no other school can match its desirability in the near future.” Bruni’s piece continues with ever more outrageous illustrations of this basic point: as with many other commodities, we tend to value colleges in accordance with their exclusivity. Too often, the value we assign to a given “college experience” is directly tied to its inaccessibility to most of the population.
As we argued in Vol. 37, the essential premise behind America’s public university system was that the value of an education need not be tied its exclusivity. On the contrary, to use Marilynne Robinson’s suggestive phrase, a basic ambition of the land-grant university was the “democratization of privilege.”
This ambition, of course, has not always been realized. As the staff of This American Life found back in 2009, the democratization of privilege on college campuses often ends up looking more like the proliferation of vice. After Penn State was deemed the nation’s “number one party school,” Ira Glass and company chronicled not only the experiences of students, but the whole institutional ecology underpinning a football weekend in State College, PA. There is, of course, a form of education happening in places like State College on weekends like the one this episode describes; the question is, is it a form of maturation?
In Vol. 5, which also addressed the nature of higher education in our time, we included a piece by James Davison Hunter titled “Wither Adulthood?” There, Hunter argues not only that we are experiencing a delay in the transition from childhood to adulthood, but that the “rites of passage” that mark this transformation—graduation ceremonies, religious initiations, weddings—are either increasingly privatized or carried on within weak cultural institutions. But the need for rites of passage persists, and as a result, we should not be surprised to see the American college experience full of risky and reckless behaviors—what Hunter calls the “ad hoc functional equivalents of rites of passage.” Crucially, however, in these “rites” there is little to no age difference between those doing the initiating and those being initiated. Whereas traditional rites of passage depend upon the authority and wisdom of elders, contemporary rites of passage are almost always administered by peers.
Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Siva Vaidhyanathan proposes an Epicurean approach to enjoying college. According to Vaidhyanathan, whether or not a student arrives at the University with all the skills required to thrive at the “achievement mill,” they quickly learn that “all of society’s signals drive them to achieve at all costs, including their mental health.” The result of this drive, Vaidhyanathan says, “has been a spike in success (which in turn benefits the university as its high-achieving alumni write big checks) and self-medication, in the forms of stimulants for studying and binge-drinking alcohol for stress release.” By contrast, Vaidhyanathan shows that “Epicurus taught that pleasure and thus happiness come from time spent in deep contemplation, in conversation with friends, and in appreciation of simple tastes and sweet moments.”
The debate over what kinds of rituals should mark the transition to adulthood—and what kinds of virtues those rituals should celebrate—is live and ongoing. What seems clear is that the commoditization of education and the fading significance of traditional rites of passage have created deep confusion about the value and purpose of a “college experience,” and its role in the mysterious phenomenon called “growing up.”