When Adolescent Culture Goes to College

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College students have been protesting lately in many different settings, from Occupy Wall Street to classroom walkouts, to the riots at Penn State.  Each incident recommends its own separate analysis and explanation, but it is important to recognize what they share in common as well.  Philip C. Altbach and Patti Peterson reminded us that student protest is as old as the Republic, though it received national attention and serious analysis only in the 1960s: “In 1823, half the Harvard senior class was expelled shortly before graduation for participating in disruptive activity, and students were involved in anti-conscription campaigns during the Civil War. Student activism before 1960, however, had no major impact on national policy, and prior to 1900, no organized student activist groups emerged.  Yet there is a tradition of student involvement in politics in the United States, and many of the concerns of the activists of the sixties are reflected in the past.”  (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1971.)

Since the 1960s, the forms of protest have not changed all that much.  Writing about secondary education in 1959 in the Harvard Education Review (and soon afterwards in 1961 in his major study, The Adolescent Society) the sociologist James S. Coleman observed:  “We are beset by a peculiar paradox: in our complex industrial society there is increasingly more to learn, and formal education is ever more important in shaping one’s life chances; at the same time, there is coming to be more and more an independent ‘society of adolescents,’ an adolescent culture which shows little interest in education and focuses the attention of teenagers on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to school” (“Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition”).  In one respect, Coleman was already laying the grounds for how “an adolescent culture,” first among the privileged, would trickle down  to those who could least afford a lack of interest in education, as Myron Magnet and Charles Murray made clear a quarter century later.

What Coleman did not anticipate is that the real locus of adolescent culture would move from secondary education to university education during the last quarter of the twentieth century, when, especially among the upper-middle class, the “structure of competition” made “getting into college,” and in particular, into elite colleges, a crucial matter of how students performed in high school.  At the same moment affirmative action came to higher education, so, too, did meritocracy, sometimes with a vengeance.  The result has been an unprecedented competitive spirit unleashed for entrance into roughly the same number of spots in elite institutions that existed fifty years ago.  But this is only a story about a miniscule fraction of the number of young people who matriculate.  When U.S. News and World Report ranks the top ten schools, the actual number of students attending those schools could not fill the demand for well-paid jobs even in a recession.  It is probably the case, however, that among the students at those top-ten schools, adolescence is subordinated much more to ambition than at larger, lesser ranked schools, such as Penn State.

Consider a comparison between the recent Harvard protest involving students walking out of N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics course and students rioting on the Penn State main campus upon learning of the firing of football coach Joe Paterno. At Harvard, the protest was the epitome of aristocratic politeness, a walkout by five to ten percent of the class to make the point that Mankiw is guilty of too much influence: “the point of the walkout [its organizers argued] was not to silence conservative viewpoints, but rather to protest Professor Mankiw’s monopoly over the presentation of economics to over 700 students with little experience in the field every year.”  This adolescent condescension is indicative of adult expectations about civil discourse already in place.  Walking out of a class drew attention not only to Mankiw but to a polite style of protest whose ante could have been (but was not) upped by the tactic of the sit-in.  Students who joined the walk-out actually succeeded in bringing attention to Professor Mankiw’s thoughts on the importance of engaging perspectives as diverse as those of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, both of whom he mentioned when he was interviewed on National Public Radio.  Harvard students have come a long way since their adolescent tantrums against Edward Banfield.

Penn State is another matter entirely.  Unlike the young arguing fervently with their adult counterparts, there was instead at Penn State a systemic failure on the part of adults to protect the young.  The next months and years will be spent trying to account for how so obvious a failure in judgment by such accomplished people could ever have happened.  Already the explanations and rationalizations are emerging, including the sacred nature of major college football, the invulnerability of those running the football program, and the poor quality of on-campus oversight of sexual assault adjudication.  If there is any ideal of fiduciary responsibility in higher education, it stems not from academic freedom but from the relationship any public or private institution has to the laws that apply to all citizens regardless of their position.  The Penn State Board of Trustees acted with its own dispatch in dispatching in particular a figure so revered that even the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to acknowledge his extraordinary contributions over six decades in the wake of his precipitous demise.  Mr. Paterno’s association with child rape, however attenuated it may eventually turn out to be, was clearly sufficient to end his career, thus raising the interesting question about what is really meant by fiduciary responsibility.  The Trustees acted not on the basis of immediate legal concern, but rather on a concept of responsibility that has been called the non-contractual aspects of contract.  Sins of omission are as consequential as those of commission. Paterno is truly a hero to Penn State, and his fall from grace speaks to the observation that America is a land with very few heroes anymore.

But it is not the absence of heroes as much as heroism that is really at stake in such an observation.  In this respect, the “hero” Paterno could have acted heroically by insisting that his legion of student supporters behave themselves.  He could have acted courageously in front of the media insisting that such behavior was tantamount to tearing him down as much as the reputation of the institution to which he is now so fatefully connected.  Instead student protest at State College turned irrational and violent, vindicating all the critics of football

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

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