Use college to begin adulthood, not finish adolescence

By Simon Brown / Columnist

In the opening of “Moby Dick,” the narrator, Ishmael, recounts how he spent the years from adolescence to adulthood: “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” The reader knows, generally, what he means by this. The whale ship, its responsibilities and its crew defined young Ishmael’s life. In the process, he learned to “ascribe all the honor and glory to whaling.”  

This moment in a definitive Great American Novel takes its place in a long tradition of our country’s literature — a fascination and anxiety toward the ways we mature into adulthood. This tradition and its manifestation in contemporary television and film recently came under the lens of film critic A.O. Scott, who last week wrote the provocative article “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”

Scott summons quotes from Mark Twain to Judd Apatow to make his point that American culture has long struggled to seriously address adulthood and has always elevated adolescent heroes and their rebellions above their mean parents. Now, to Scott, the same youth worship plays across the big screen and small screen alike. 

The American college has always represented the location of that terrifying leap from adolescence to adulthood, from self-absorbed rebellion to societal commitment, as Ishmael reminds us. Our cultural fixation on youth has lifted the experience of college to nostalgic heights. The mantra that “college is the best four years of your life,” however, distorts the experience for young people, who are anxious not to “waste” those precious years. We ought to reconsider our cultural expectation that college be the last gasp of adolescence, and we should, instead, consider it the entrance to a redefined adulthood.  

From the movie “The Freshman” in the 1920s, to “Animal House” in the ’70s, to “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street” this year, the most popular films about college life have always depicted the ideal student as an overgrown teenager still rebelling against societal expectations — usually through copious drinking and sexual conquests. He (it seems to be overwhelmingly “hes” in these depictions) progresses through the same rites of passage he did in high school: He asserts his masculinity through sexual experience and his independence by ignoring authorities — whether it’s parents, professors or police.

These recurring images speak to our cultural expectations for the college experience. They emerge from the memories of our parents’ generation, the first to attend college en masse, which often recalls college’s high points as the last episodes of carefree self-discovery before the stress of adult commitment. We have recycled that episodic memory into the ubiquitous ‘list of things to do before you graduate,’ which invariably repeats the same moments to be checked off: Drink alcohol. Have sexual relations with someone you don’t know. Go to sporting events. Etc.

Even the admirable items are listed as singular episodes. 

“Hey, do you remember that time I ‘Forced myself to think critically about race, religion, money, family and sex?’”

“Yeah, that was a pretty cool time.” 

These lists express the common anxiety on the part of the readers and writers alike. When you are exposed to a culture that continually tells you that the last four (or five, or six) years of adolescence before graduation are fleeting, you welcome anyone else’s words of advice for how to take advantage of that time.  

Students will always feel anxious about the developmental changes that come with college, but we ought to rethink what the important changes are. What matters in college aren’t the hazily-remembered moments of adolescent self-indulgence against society, but, rather, the gradual process of altering the way you view yourself within society. In short, it’s the long stint on the whale ship that leaves you with admiration and commitment to your community, not to yourself.

Herein lies the missing piece in Scott’s “Death of Adulthood.” Scott applauds how our society views with approval the TV shows depicting the downfall of “patriarchs,” whether Tony Soprano, Don Draper or even Walter White. But he laments that no model of adulthood has taken the place of the outdated, misogynistic father figure. 

A reconsidered college experience could supply young adults with replacements for those figures. The defining flaw of the old-school patriarch is his warped view of adulthood defined by accomplishments and possessions. An adult makes his own paycheck, tells other people what to do, has a wife and children (and tells them what to do) and owns his property. That list, however, is not within everyone’s reach — nor does everyone want to reach it. 

In the same way, contemporary culture defines a successful college experience by a narrow and arbitrary range of accomplishments. The ideal experience, however, lies in the learned ability to discard those lists and realize that everyone makes his or her own list and that different goals can be equally fulfilling. The students who choose to not only follow their list, but to explore and appreciate the lists of others, can also learn to respect a myriad of ways of expressing adulthood.

Write to Simon at [email protected]