Benjamin Franklin once commented that “life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late,” and nowhere is this assertion more true than in college, where it seems that an entire generation of newly minted adults try to show just how immature and foolish they can be. Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online editor, put it best when he stated, “A college education, for good and bad, has turned into a four-year entitlement to make an ass of oneself while you learn a few things on the side.”
The current theory that many students take with them into their college years was summed up very well in an opinion piece by Bryan Birsic that appeared in last week’s Record. Birsic writes, “You enter [college] as a child and leave as an adult. It is a time to experience new things, good and bad. A time to live it up, act like a kid while you still can and just have a hell of a good time.”
There are some errors in this conception of the college experience. Primarily, if college is a place where “you enter as a child and leave as an adult,” how exactly is it appropriate that you “act like a kid while you still can?” If you are truly trying to become an adult in college, you should be throwing off childish actions in favor of growing into a responsible adult. It is impossible to grow more mature while clinging to immaturity. Unfortunately, it is difficult to act in a mature, responsible matter. It is much easier and a lot more fun to simply continue to “act like a kid.” Responsibility mandates that you do not undertake actions without a careful consideration of the consequences. Acting like a kid requires no greater rationale than “it feels good.”
The other major problem with this common conception of college is the idea that one should “experience new things, good or bad.” This is a very, very bad idea. I would hope that human beings, who have access to higher cognitive processes, would use that mental power to steer themselves away from the bad and dangerous experiences. This kind of experience-for-experience’s-sake argument is essentially foolish because it demands that we give up reason and logic as guides for our actions and simply tread about blindly, hoping that the consequences of our quest for experience are not too high.
This idea of the virtue of experience has often been used to defend youthful debauchery. The best such defense I have encountered was in Cicero’s Pro Caelio, which was delivered back in 56 B.C. The great orator argued that such actions are simply a mark of youth, and as long as they are not taken to destructive extremes they can be a positive force, as satiety and experience will cause a young man to turn away from things which reason previously had not taught him to avoid.
However, this argument revolves around a misapplication of the facts. Just because people who spend a great deal of their youth experiencing bad things later stop and live a responsible, good life does not mean that it is experience which causes them to abandon their lifestyle. In reality, most people give up their youthful misdeeds in order to sustain a proper life once they lose the safety net of college. When you need to work for a living, it becomes a lot more difficult to maintain immature behavior. Sleeping through a morning class because you were up the night before drinking carries almost no consequences. Sleeping through a morning of work for the same reason will likely get you fired.
It is also an incredible fallacy that experiencing things like excessive drinking and drug use will help convince a young person to turn away from these actions. In fact, the opposite is true, as these are actions that give us cheap pleasure. As long as there are no real consequences, there is little reason for a college student to think that these actions are bad. The pleasure associated with them is so great that most students will actually be willing to ignore any consequences that are present even in the relatively consequence-free environment of college. For proof, think of the people you know who, week after week, drink far too much despite the sickness and painful hangovers that follow. Or, think of your own reaction when a friend tells you a story of their drunken misadventures. Rather than take this story as a warning, you most likely chuckle in amusement and look forward to drinking enough to produce your own hilarious story.
Of course, college students will continue to uncover interesting ways to defend their activities. Take, for example, Lucas Peterson’s letter in the Jan. 22 issue of The Record, which cleverly substitutes sarcasm and mockery for any actual argument. On a more serious level is Alex Lees’s contention in the same issue that those who criticize the immature actions of other students are “comically arrogant, philosophically ignorant and ludicrously hostile towards those who do [them] no wrong.” This accusation is based on the idea that all should be free to find their own path to enlightenment, whether that path is in a textbook or in the bottle. I cannot really argue with this idea by itself, as I am a pretty consistent believer in the philosophy of live and let live.
However, it is quite a stretch to move from the idea that people should be free to choose their own pursuits to the idea that all pursuits are morally equal. You should feel free to spend your nights binge drinking, but do not pretend that your actions carry the same moral value as studying. And do not assert that you are free from criticism just because you do not criticize others.
College is, in many ways, a land without laws, where the student can even ignore the government rules against things such as underage drinking and possession of illegal drugs. It is here, where we are for the first time truly allowed to make our own decisions, that many of us can find out who we really are.
Unfortunately, most students refuse to step forward and accept responsibility. They cling to their childhood and adopt all sorts of arguments to excuse their refusal to begin growing up. That is fine; people should be free to choose their own paths and make mistakes. But they should also realize that while they may be having fun they are seriously delaying their own growth and maturation into adulthood.