The Politics of Never Growing Up

Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.

Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.

And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:

For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.

What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.

This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in  life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.

The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.

C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.

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