A few years ago, I complained to a friend who worked in the Dean of Students office because there were bounce houses at the university’s opening weekend celebration. They were the most notable attraction in an elaborate fair designed to occupy the new students during their first few days in the dorm. His response: “we are doing everything we can to stop them from drinking.”
Helping to curb self-destructive behavior isn’t a bad thing, but infantilizing people to do it only makes matter worse. These are 18-year olds at a university. If they can’t fend for themselves, they could be doing college-related things: getting tours, taking orientation courses, learning the basics of cooking and financial management (our students do not know how to balance a checkbook, let alone how to make a simple pasta sauce), reading an important essay and discussing it en masse, participating in mock archeological digs, getting etiquette lessons and dressing up for a formal welcome banquet, visiting an observatory or a laboratory, write something and publish it using old-fashioned printing press, perhaps even exploring the campus by doing some public service. These kind of events would have set a tone of maturity for the coming year. They would have announced that college is a place for work, study, self-exploration, and social commitment, and that growing-up involves expanding the pastimes one should find interesting and enjoyable. Instead, the wants university to portray itself as “fun” and puts on a carnival. The fact is, most students never recover. They never grasp that learning can be pleasurable and that taking responsibility for their own actions is the prerequisite for freedom. At least if they do, they don’t do it while enrolled at UND.
The fundamental problem is that the university no longer thinks of students as adults. Adolescence in American culture has been extended to people’s mid-twenties, and with this stunted maturity, comes the same perpetual message: nothing you do counts right now, so have at it. The students welcome this because it gives them permission to act out and to put off the hard decisions for another five to ten years. But this also means that there are no clear criteria for when adulthood is evoked. Schools only call students adults when they want to punish them or collect their bills, and the students only invoke their own adulthood when they want something they’re not allowed to have. “Adult” has become a term of self-interested manipulation instead of a moral category to be universally acknowledged and respected.
Technically, of course, college students are legal adults, but this means very little, especially since violent and drug-using criminals have been tried as adults as young as 13. Once in college, consequences are relaxed. If students rape, they get expelled but rarely go to jail; if they plagiarize—if they steal someone else’s work—they get a stern talking to, or on occasion, fail a course. If they don’t show up for work or a class session, they offer teenage excuses, and when they do fail or are fired, they simply move on to the next things. One of the most shocking experience of being a teacher is seeing how remorseless our students are about neglecting their responsibilities.
Ultimately, like oil and coal, college students are resources to be exploited. They are bound by any legal contract they sign, so they are inundated with credit card applications, loan offers, and product after product. They are above the age of consent, so their bodies can be used, packaged, and sold. And they are old enough to join the military, so they can be sent to die in wars that resolve nothing. In other words, you can fuck them, kill them, and take their money, but if you surround them by bouncy houses, you don’t actually have to treat them as peers. In return, they will live up (or down) to the expectations set for them. They will not take adulthood for themselves; they will wait until it is given.
All of this sets up a philosophical problem. If students are neither adults nor non-adults, what are they? The most recent answer is that they are becoming-adults, or to use the dominant term, they are experiencing “emerging adulthood.” According to the psychological and sociological literature, emerging adults are not fully-developed human beings. They are people in flux who are exploring various life possibilities, trying new identities with no major responsibilities like children or mortgages. They are economically dependent and psychologically guided by others.
The problem is that “emerging adulthood” is profoundly condescending. It ignores that all of life is an exploration of possibilities and that everyone continually revises their identity. It skews expectations towards irresponsibility and childlike behavior; an emerging adult is just a kid who is old enough to take advantage of.
The term diminishes college students beyond what is acceptable and sets all of them up to fail. It turns teachers into parents and student complaints into tantrums; no one benefits from its prevalence. Maybe it is true that college students aren't prepared for adulthood, but being an adult and being ready to be one are two different things. Adulthood is simply one of those things that you can only realize when it is foisted upon you; being an adult and doing adulthood are the same thing.
I am not suggesting that we lost some glory age of adulthood, nor do I long for an imagined perfect college of scholars without physical desires. Higher education has always involved sex, drugs, sports, and resistance to schoolwork. Universities have to cater to the whole person, not a caricature. But there is a change in the air and what I am hoping to clarify is a host of debates that have dominated social networks. We have all seen articles about college students’ need for intellectual protection in class, calls for trigger warnings on syllabi, and laments about grade inflation. There are demands for students to be graded on effort and to be protected from professors with political opinions. Universities are now built with gyms that are more like theme parks than wellness centers, and degrees are granted with fewer requirements and way more electives.
Administrators and marketers will tell you that all of these changes are about the competition to increase enrollment, about becoming the best university, and about justifying a $40,000 tuition bill, but that’s not really what’s going on. The bells and whistles at American universities are entirely about reclassifying students as children and making their experience more like summer camp. They diminish student power and the faculty’s ability to create accountable standards. They infantilize the voter and limit access to real education for even the wealthiest of people.
If emerging adults are to be protected and advocated for, not listened to or learned from, college becomes a vacation, not the initiation into democratic participation it should be. It ends up being a rite of passage to nowhere—an experience to be reminisced about, not a challenge to work through. When this happens, emerging adults will celebrate the fun but they will never grow. They will already be satisfied consumers getting what they want because they will have reached the end of their journey the moment they begin it. Universities will cease to have meaning and no one will notice.
Follow the author on Twitter at @jackrweinstein