Keep Teenagers Weird

A couple years ago, Jan Hoffman wrote a piece for The New York Times on the disparity in quality of life between adults who were “cool kids” in middle and high school, and the adults who spent those same years in obscurity or unpopularity. “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” cited a study which reported on a group of American kids from age 13 all the way to age 23. Among other things, the study discovered that the kids who enjoyed popularity and social ease in their early teens were significantly more troubled and at risk by the time they reached early adulthood than their less admired peers.

An excerpt from Hoffman:

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

Why is this? Why do the “cool kids” of middle and high school struggle once they leave their social circles? The sociologists responsible for the study suggest an intriguing answer: the superfluousness of popularity prevents these teens from developing actual relational skills and inner maturity. They’re so busy trying to be liked that they don’t cultivate a self-identity or the ability to be at ease by themselves. By 17 or 18, the relationships and cliques that made them admired have evaporated, and, no longer able to define themselves in that way, they can only persist in the “pseudomature” behaviors that eventually become habit.

Shortly after reading Hoffman’s piece, I told my wife Emily about it.  Several of Emily’s popular classmates in middle and high school have borne children out of wedlock. Others have struggled with unemployment, substance abuse and even suicide.  Of course, everyone will have personal struggles, regardless of what the teenage years bring; but my wife has noticed that, like the study demonstrates, those friends who had lower profiles in school have tended to fare much better in life outside school.

The pressure in adolescence to be liked is often all-consuming. I’m constantly reminded of Jake Halpern’s “fame survey,” part of the research he did for his 2007 book Fame Junkies. Halpern polled over 600 American teenagers with questions that measured desire for popularity and fame against other life ambitions. The results of Halpern’s study are sobering: Teenage girls were more likely to choose fame over intelligence and both boys and girls said they would rather be a personal assistant to a celebrity than a university president, a Senator, or a major CEO. Of course, it doesn’t come as a shock that teenagers want to be admired. But if Hoffman’s study is reliable, then we have a better idea of how crippling that desire can become for many teens.

In thinking about this from the perspective of the church,  one thing seems clear: It is a fatal mistake to shape ministry to youths that looks like popular culture. An extremely helpful guide in this for me has been professor James K.A. Smith’s work on Christian education and personal formation. The problem, according to Dr. Smith, is that an overriding emphasis on forming a Christian worldview is actually built on a non-Christian assumption, namely, that humans are primarily cognitive and rational beings as opposed to primarily desiring and emotive ones. Rather than focus on instilling the right kinds of information in Christian students, Dr. Smith says that Christian education should be concerned with the kind of people that emerge from it, concerned with having the right desires and emotions.

 Why do youth ministers often struggle to get the students in their care to understand how the promises of the Gospel override the fleeting pleasures of fame and popularity in this world? How is it that students with impressive knowledge of the Bible and even faithful attendance to the church’s programming are nonetheless more deeply moved at the images and (to borrow Dr. Smith’s terminology) liturgy of popular culture than they are at Christian life and discipleship?

Perhaps one answer is that the desire to be loved by strangers is ultimately stronger than the desire to get the answers right at Bible study group. In fact, the loudness and busyness of most evangelical student ministry programming might actually be reinforcing the very worldly liturgies its trying to contest. Listen to what Hoffman writes near the end of her piece:

Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”

In other words, it is the formation of quiet virtues and the cultivation of meaning that create a mature person. How many of our Christian student ministries are built on personal formation rather than membership in a Christianized clique?

Perhaps our evangelical student ministries can reach more deeply in the souls of students by promising more than the right answers with the right people. Perhaps the formation of teens in our churches should start out by reassuring them that God made everybody weird and that is OK. Perhaps rather than promising a great summer retreat or a fun filled calendar of programming, youth ministers could promise relationships and covenant bonds that don’t wilt as the years go by. Perhaps we could offer community rooted in the gospel as a retreat from the cruel meritocracy of pop culture.

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.

Debunking 3 Myths About Homeschooling

When you hear the word “homeschool,” what do you think? Do you think of underground bunkers filled with fringe evangelical families trying avoid any infecting contact with the outside world? Do you think of rural nightmares where parents stash children in home like pets and feed them anti-government conspiracies?

If you do, you desperately need to read Matthew Hennessey’s exceptional article on the rise of urban homeschooling. It’s a lengthy piece, but worth every second of your attention.

Hennessey’s research into the rise of homeschooling within urban communities is especially helpful in tearing down some noxious myths about homeschooling families. Here are just a few that his piece thoroughly dismantles:

Myth #1: Homeschooling Is Just For Conservative Evangelical Families Wanting a Conservative Evangelical Curriculum. 

Hennessey’s essay makes a powerful case that the current rise in homeschooling, particularly in urban contexts, is not particularly religious. While the booming emergence of the national homeschool movement in the 1980s and 90s did owe much to conservative Christian culture and politics, Hennessey notes that religious reasons are less common for homeschooling families. An excerpt:

 …[T]he homeschooling population has continued to grow dramatically, while also becoming more secular. In 2002, according to a DOE survey, 72 percent of homeschooling families cited “a desire to provide religious instruction” as one of their reasons for educating in the home. By 2012, 64 percent cited religion as a motive for homeschooling; only 16 percent called it most important. “Most people assume we’re doing it for some sort of strange, creationist religious reason,” says Rachel Figueroa-Levin, a homeschooler who lives in Inwood, a middle-class neighborhood at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. “But we are stereotypical secular Jews.” Indeed, concern about “the environment of other schools” has supplanted religion as the Number One reason given for homeschooling, according to the DOE survey. Ninety-one percent of homeschooling parents cited school environment as at least a contributing factor.

As the rest of Hennessey’s piece demonstrates, families are more likely to opt for homeschooling as a response to low quality or insufficient public education than they are merely to provide an explicitly religious curriculum.  This undermines the common criticism that homeschooling families are a feature of struggling public education and not a response to it. Too often public education officials, teachers unions and politicians will claim that fixing schools requires roping in students who are kept out of the system for ideological reasons. But this misrepresents the homeschooling movement entirely.

Myth #2:  Homeschoolers Receive a Poorer Education 

Hennessey pulls some helpful data to make a convincing case that not only are homeschoolers not behind their public school peers, they’re actually leading them. Here’s Hennessy again:

Some critics claim that homeschooled kids won’t be prepared to do college-level work, but available data suggest otherwise. In 2009, NEHRI’s Ray looked at the standardized test results of 12,000 homeschoolers from all 50 states, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico. He found that homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points above the norm on the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and the Stanford Achievement Test. A recent study published in The Journal of College Admission found that homeschooled students had higher composite ACT scores than their non-homeschooled peers and graduated college at higher rates—66.7 percent, compared with 57.5 percent. “In recent years, we’ve admitted ten or 12 homeschooled students” per year, says Marlyn McGrath, admissions director at Harvard, where each class numbers about 1,600.

Personally, I didn’t need to read this data to know that my homeschooling peers were above the pack academically. I’ve had more public schooled friends than homeschooled ones but I can say with no hesitation that the homeschooling friends I had were more academically achieved in college and, generally speaking, did better in careers right out of school. And it’s not that my publicly educated friends were dimwits; far from it. It’s that the homeschoolers in my social circle weren’t just marginally better at college, they were a lot better. There are just so many resources for homeschooling families nowadays that only the completely uninformed could imagine that a homeschool education is de facto a disadvantage.

Myth #3: Homeschooling Families Need More Government Oversight

Of all the myths about homeschooling, it’s probably easiest for me to empathize with this one. It makes sense on the surface: We have lots and lots of federal standards for education in public schools. Why do homeschooling families deserve special treatment?

The first answer is that the premise behind the myth is wrong. There really isn’t a compelling reason to believe that loads of federal standards on public education do a lot of good. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or what specific policies you endorse, it’s difficult to ignore letters like this one in The Washington Post , describing a public school teacher’s frustration with the invasive and pedagogically difficult standards.

Secondly, strict oversight of homeschooling families is often at odds with basic civil liberties. The line between trying to help children receive a quality education and violating personal rights is a notoriously fragile one. Listen to this story that Hennessey cites in his piece:

In November, on behalf of homeschooling parents Laura and Jason Hagan, the Home School Legal Defense Association filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against two members of the Nodaway County, Missouri, sheriff’s department. The sheriffs had forced their way into the Hagan residence after being called by a child protective-services caseworker investigating a report that the home was “messy.” The Hagans refused entry to the investigators, so the sheriffs pepper-sprayed them, tasered Jason, and threatened to shoot the family dog—all in full view of the Hagan children. The sheriffs charged the Hagans with resisting arrest and with child endangerment. At trial, however, a judge ruled that the lawmen had violated the Hagans’ Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a warrant.

You may think that’s an isolated, outrageous incident. But we’ve already seen an astonishing amount of examples in the past year of enforcing “helicopter parenting,” of legal retribution to families that don’t strictly supervise every minute of their child’s day. In my view, the burden is on critics of homeschooling to give compelling reasons why increased regulations on homeschoolers won’t result in egregious violations of personal and religious liberty. Until that concern is answered in a clear way, aiming additional legislation at homeschoolers is worrisome.

Anyway, you really should read all of Hennessey’s piece. Send it to friends, especially friends dubious of homeschoolers.

Tassels and Truth

I spent about four hours of my Monday night at a college graduation. My wife was being awarded her degree in elementary education, and she was joined by (according to the college president) 995 other undergraduates. Graduates were welcomed, inducted, charged, presented, and awarded, in that order. The night was long; speeches repeated, processionals and recessionals slogged, and of course, each of the 995 students were called, conferred, and congratulated individually.

It was a ceremony clearly not tailored to the entertainment generation or the babies of endless social media connectivity. Neither was it the du jour of those “radicals,” found so often on college campuses, who detest tradition and protest uniformity. Students marched in step behind large banners, signifying their membership in one of the university’s schools. Everyone wore the same traditional black gown and cap. Songs older than many US states were sung. It was, in many ways, a kind of religious ceremony, in which tradition, institution, and (academic) success made up the liturgy.

I realized at one point that for all the endless intellectual coddling and culture policing that characterizes the contemporary American university, a bachelor’s degree culminates in an event that defies such self-expressive autonomy. Graduation invites students, faculty, family and friends to believe that they are participating in something greater than themselves, to find satisfaction and joy in the idea that what they have achieved has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Yes, graduates have their names called, and yes, graduates receive their own degrees. But the entire ethos of the ceremony is one that says: “This is not ultimately about you.”

This is the opposite, of course, of what many undergraduates learn in the college classroom. We hear almost daily updates on an American university culture which at every turn empowers freshmen and sophomores to authenticate themselves through protest, rather than sit and learn about an imperfect world at the feet of imperfect people. Much of young adult life is what Alan Jacobs calls the “trade-in society,” a life of loose connection and easy escape from situations that become difficult. If institutions become ornery, if they cease to align up perfectly with my individual desires and goals, then the solution is to either give up on the institution or else demand that it change.

Nihilism in higher education has been rampant for some time. But if what I saw Monday night was an indication, it looks like it has mostly failed to leave its imprint on graduation. Presidents and executive administrators sat on the stage, above the floor of graduates; no one protested this obvious hierarchy. I didn’t see any letters to the editor in the following days demanding that the school change its individualism-stifling policy on the robe and cap. Nary a thought was given to whether the school fight song, written in 1892, might have been penned by someone with questionable social or political opinion. In other words, there seems to be no pressing need to make commencement in our sociopolitical image. The ritual is allowed to be ritual.

Why is this? Why, among all the college unrest and university politics in our culture today, is there no national movement to “democratize” commencement? Why is there no formidable backlash to its rigidity and solemnity?

Perhaps one answer is that graduation is one of the few moments remaining in our culture where achievement needs tradition. What a conferring of degrees means is dependent on what, or who, is conferring them. This is, after all, the difference between a college education and a few bucks paid to a diploma mill at a PO box. Anyone can write anything on a piece of paper. But the bigness—we might even say transcendence—of the commencement ceremony befits a time where graduates are declared matriculated by those with the (trigger warning) power to say so.

A commencement invites students to become not just graduates, but alumni. That’s why so much of the chancellor’s speech on Monday was given to exulting in the university’s history and prestige. Students aren’t just receiving degrees; they’re receiving membership, a form of covenant (however informal) that ties them to a specific place and a specific body. Implicit in the commencement is the idea that people need to belong, and that belonging to something greater than and outside oneself is not opposed to individual achievement and success.

Unfortunately, from August to April, much of college life teaches the opposite. From radical deconstructionism in the humanities, to rank scientism in mathematics and biology, to the campus hook up culture—all of these coalesce into a living liturgy of lonely autonomy and hopeless self-authentication.

Is the unraveling of the American campus really a surprise? I can’t see how it is. If everything in the classroom and commons area screams that transcendence and God are nothing but ciphers for the powerful, might one eventually want to apply the rules learned about home, country, and religion to the college itself? Why be oppressed? Higher education was comfortable directing this energy toward the general culture for decades; the only problem now is that the barrels are turned the wrong way. If Lady Thatcher was right that running out of other people’s money was the trouble with socialism, you might say the problem with nihilism in education is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s safe spaces.

So the drama of higher education continues. In the coming years we will see just how strong an institution it is, as it tries to fend off the threats of digitalization, debt, and decay. It very well could be that the internet age was created for such a time as this, to rescue the university from itself and provide a generation with the knowledge and intellectual formation that a coddling college culture has defaulted on. In many ways it would be, as Ross Douthat has noted, a punishment that fits academia’s crime.

Whatever the future holds, let’s hold off on tampering too much with commencement. It’s indeed tedious and self-congratulating. But it’s also a spark of meaning and permanence and truth in the cavernous culture of higher ed. As tassels move to the left, it could be that something much bigger moves to the right.

The Lost Art of Disagreement

Toward the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were estranged. Years of political tensions, ideological disagreements, personal rivalries and perhaps bit of misunderstanding had all but snuffed out one of the great friendships in American political history. But one day, Adams’ physician and fellow Revolutionary, Benjamin Rush, suggested that his aging patient write to Mr. Jefferson, ceasing decades of silence. For reasons still not entirely clear, Adams did write, and the result was the beginning of what historian and Adams biographer David McCullough descibes as “one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history.”

The Adams-Jefferson letters are remarkable, but not because of their powerful rhetoric or political genius. Rather, the private conversation of the second and third presidents’ reveals a profound respect and affection for one another, even as the two patriots were decidedly in opposition on many issues. These letters did not settle such disputes; they were never intended to. To their dying day (both Adams and Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826) the men argued and debated everything from religion to revolution. But their respect and good faith in each other was rekindled, never to wane again.

Adams and Jefferson exemplified the art of disagreement. We would do well to contemplate their example, for it seems that contemporary American culture is rapidly forfeiting this art.

Consider the recent grandstanding from a gaggle of American governors, who have issued “non-essential travel bans” to North Carolina. The reason? Voters in the Tar Heel state recently moved to preemptively prevent litigation from creating mixed-sex, public restrooms. This is apparently enough to warrant a rhetorical persona non grata from state executives who disagree.

Our sexual politics have become so intensely value-laden that every movement away from legal and cultural orthodoxy triggers ostracism and shaming. The prevailing notion seems to be that transgressions against very novel doctrines of gender ideology and sexual psychology should be subjected, not to debate and persuasion, but to punishment. Our public square is shrinking to exclude all who question majority thought.

The loss of good faith in public dialogue isn’t exclusive to one side of the aisle. Crank conservatism has found a patriarch in the 2016 Republican frontrunner, whose relentless personal attacks on any and all who challenge him are exposing a deep and systematic animus in right-wing politics. You don’t even have to explore what he says about immigrants and minorities to see this; a look at how he treats journalists and even party cohorts is jarring enough.

Politicians often love to mention how “divided” the country is, and how it Just Wasn’t Like This when the party opposite was in power. This may be a reliable talking point for stump speeches, but there’s no small amount of partisan opportunism in it either. “Bringing the country together” is admittedly often a shorthand for eliminating as much as possible the idea that the opposing party was on to something.

Yet as dubious as the motivations behind this rhetoric may be, there’s an important element of truth here. The ritual of honest, principled disagreement between people who respect one another and mutually assume the best intentions has done an astonishing disappearing act in much of our culture. Instead, our religious and political dialogue is either unhinged and bitter, passive aggressive and condescending, or else completely neutered to the point of meaninglessness.

We shouldn’t assume that politicians are the worst offenders. The digital age has fostered such online animus and abuse amongst ordinary Americans that many digital journals and newspapers have responded by disabling on-site commenting, considered just a few years ago a dynamic way of promoting publications and driving conversation. Abusive online behavior is epidemic, as is the “shame culture” of social media.

Trolling is relatively straightforward, but not all evidence for the lost art of civil discourse is so obvious. The inability to disagree well in American culture often takes a more passive aggressive form. Consider the trends now at work across university campuses, what sociologists have dubbed the “coddling of the American mind.” The appearance of expectations of college administrators to protect students from ideas they dislike or literature they find uncomfortable is a less unhinged but not less serious manifestation of an intellectual paralysis when it comes to disagreement. Students now demand “safe spaces” from institutions that were created for the explicit purpose of not providing such things. Whereas the university has traditionally been considered a place where learners are confronted with realities and then expected to make sense of them, contemporaries insist that schools accommodate the expectations and worldview of the students—provided, of course, that the students’ belief systems are congruent with secular forms of progressivism.

Principled, civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view, to understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions can nonetheless arrive at an opposite conclusion. Adams and Jefferson never reconciled many of their political opinions, but they were able to throw aside the cynicism and suspicions of evil intent that had crept into their friendship.

It’s this willingness to accept the possibility of disagreement between two parties that both intend good that seems lost in much of our culture. The effect is double-sided: Many conversations that deserve nuance and good faith never happen, and demagogues who actually merit censure sound more “authentic.”

Both of these trends, the virulent nastiness and passive coddling, might seem to be restricted to a very select portions of American culture. But the popularity of bullish, epithet-laden political campaigns suggests that they signal a much wider cultural malady. Efforts at self-justification that emphasize “honesty” and glow about “telling it like it is” are merely shibboleths. They mask the decay of an important ethic: The willingness to accept one’s own fallibility and live in light of it.

The art of disagreement is crucial not just to our own personal lives but to the health of the public square. If we cultivate suspicion and conspiracy theories instead of good faith, we will eventually crave those attributes in our leaders. On the other hand, if we practice the public virtues of courage, conviction, and kindness, our ideological differences will help us sharpen our own thinking as learn from–and try to convince–one another.

Honest, empathetic disagreement may not make for exciting talk radio or high cable ratings, but it is essential both for civic liberty and Christian mission. Persuasion is, after all, harder and less titillating than bombast, but without it, our heralding of both spiritual and political truth is undermined. We must not stray irretrievably far from the spirit of Adams and Jefferson. To do so would be to lose much more than an election.

How Seriously Should You Take College Students?

I distinctly remember walking into my professor’s office and gently shutting the door. I had some questions for my teacher about some things he had been saying, some other things that I had been reading, and why a lot of what I was learning from the classroom didn’t make sense to me. What the conversation was about I only vaguely recall. What’s still clear to me is the sense of intellectual exploration that I felt, as an older, wiser, and available man whom I admired talked me through the things that weighed on me in that season of life.

That office visit was several years ago. Many of those questions no longer trouble me. Some of the things I thought were so compelling to me at 20 are laughable now, and some things I thought ludicrous or unnecessary I have since built my life on. The professor probably knew it would turn out like that. He listened to me, yes. But he also spoke to me. I was a valuable student in his eyes, but I was not a fellow expert. He took my questions seriously but my answers less so. I know I’m better for it.

“The coddling of the American mind” has had its own news cycle for the past few weeks. Student protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, and elsewhere have occupied both headlines and presidents’ offices. Some of the student “uprisings” have published lists of “Demands,” promising continued disruptions if the demands are not immediately and unequivocally met.

Some of these demands are, undoubtedly, more reasonable than others. Some of what is going on the campuses of these schools is probably more grounded in reality and understandable frustrations than what some commentators have granted, as Ross Douthat has pointed out.

But as a whole, the hashtag activism and social media blitzkrieg that we’ve seen in the past three weeks seems to be predicated on a nonsensical and, in fact, dangerous idea: That college students should, at every meaningful turn, be taken quite seriously. Not only is this a misguided and irresponsible notion, it’s actually an acid to the intellectual lives of the very students that it purports to take so seriously.

For most American collegians, higher education begins somewhere between 17 and 20. Many students begin their college career closer to matriculation than to the legal drinking age (one of the more irrelevant laws on campus, I know). For most of America’s university students, college is more than an extension of their education or a prerequisite to their professional life: It is a causeway into independent adulthood.

The university years are not meant to be some sort of final, inarguable designator of maturity and insight. Actually, the opposite is true: The traditional university model is set up to offer its young students a rich field in which intellectual exploration and formation can flourish. Professors do not think of their job as being sparring partners for equally qualified, equally mature thinkers. Rather, professors relish the opportunity to mold intellects and affections, to train students to become the kind of learner and the kind of person that goes on to live a valuable life.

The phenomenon that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe in their definitive Atlantic piece is dangerous to many things, including free speech, college diversity, and academic freedom. But I would submit that it is most dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual formation of the students who are being coddled and satiated. By empowering 21 year olds to think of the university as a place where their felt needs should and will be treasured, parents and progressive academic administrators are communicating to these students that the most important aspects of their intellectual growth have happened already.

The incidents described in such detail by Haidt and Lukianoff depict a generation of Americans who arrive at American colleges already totally confirmed in the worldview they have developed as teens. Rather than being open to correction and vulnerable to the social risks that real diversity naturally brings, these students take what is surely a small amount of information–perhaps one emotive course on colonialism, or a powerful freshman gender studies seminar–and dictate the culture that must, per justice, emerge on campus. Not only does such a phenomenon cede the higher ground of education from the classroom to the ambient culture (including social media), it betrays the students it seeks to help by telling them a lie: That they have already discovered the real truth of their studies, and that their preexisting notions of justice and equality ought not, at this point, be challenged. What’s happening to the students is no longer education, but ordination.

Taking college students so seriously directly harms young adults in many ways, but two stand out. First, students who are coddled into thinking their intellectual formation is final and unquestionable are unlikely to see much value in studying the thinkers of the past. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery,” and it is a threat that we see more and more in our culture. Fewer college students graduate with serious appreciation for the work of generations older than Marx. More and more young professionals are not conversant with a stunning percentage of Western literature, political science, and theology. The value of old books and old thinkers is that, when we take them seriously, they explode our suspicion that we are utterly unique in our beliefs, habits, vices, and virtues. When we’re “protected” from those whose beliefs we think we’ve progressed past, we attribute to ourselves a fraudulent intellectual novelty.

The second harmful effect of taking college students too seriously is that it communicates a false idea of what life is like. College students, because they are by nature immature and more emotive, believe that good intentions, humor, passion, and just a little bit of knowledge  are what really matter in life. But this is only because the college campus is, like the high school locker room, a closed universe that doesn’t really reflect the necessary habits of mind and soul that make for success outside parental watchfulness. Habits like diligence can fall by the wayside with the allure of student loans and curved grade scales. Virtues like patience and self-control erode in the context of responsibility-free weekends. The point is that the world of college should not be confused for the world of adult life. When students are treated not like students but like fully formed philosophers and activists, this reality is missed.

Should you take college students seriously? Yes, you should. I’m glad my professor took my questions seriously. His patience and empathy helped me feel welcome, yes, but more than that, it helped me feel that this one particular season of intellectual uneasiness wasn’t permanent. Instead of telling me I should form a Facebook group or offering to include my thoughts in his next lecture, my professor responded to my searching with his own learning and experience. That’s what I treasured, and still treasure, about my college education, and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t taken so seriously that I missed it.

Christians and College Debt

I’ve found myself thinking about one particular classmate from my undergraduate years. We entered around the same time. He was able to graduate much sooner than I, though, mostly because his Sallie Mae loan covered enough of his college bill so that he could take a full load or more every semester without working many hours (if he worked at all). Unfortunately, my friend made an alarming discovery upon graduation: His bachelor’s degree, though fully accredited and indicative of a high quality education, wasn’t exactly a “Get A Job Free” card. He soon realized that a bachelor’s degree in theology was not going to help him the way he’d planned when his loan repayments came due. He was forced to get a 30 hour per week job and enroll as a new undergrad in a local public university to get a more marketable degree, merely for the hope of landing a job that would empower him to pay off the loan for his first college experience.

For many American college students, this story hits close to home. Student loan debt is no longer a minor macroeconomic footnote. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies instead dubs it a “time bomb,” a gravely serious economic stranglehold on millions of Americans. Collins notes that student loan debt is already higher than the US’s total credit card debt and will, according to some economists, balloon even more at the turn of the decade. One report released last year estimated that 70% of graduating seniors carry debt out of college and that the average student debt was just south of $30,000.

In February The New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Corinthian Colleges, a company that until recently ran hundreds of “for-profit” colleges. Due to financial troubles, Corinthian was forced to shut down all of its Canadian schools and many of its American ones, leaving students–who had taken out significant amounts of loans to help pay for an education from a Corinthian college–with little or nothing to show for their time there. The piece documented the plight of students “protesting” the events by demanding that their loans be forgiven, since the education they were taken out for is worth little. Federal agencies and US senators have joined the fray, imploring Congress to force the forgiveness of part or all of the debts.

This story poses an important moral dilemma for Christian collegians, many of whom find themselves in exactly the kind of financial straits described above. Some Christian writers have endorsed the strategies of the students protesting Corinthian, insisting that student loan is inherently unjust debt and that schools, creditors and government have a moral obligation to wipe such debt clean. That’s precisely the argument of Tad Hopp in his recent piece “Degrees of Debt.” Hopp’s passionate argument is appealing because he’s right that the problem of crushing student loan goes beyond the individual students themselves. His demand for a “conversation” about national debt forgiveness is hard to resist, as is his insistence that federal agencies and loan companies are in perfectly fine shape to not collect a few hundred million more.

But Hopp sidesteps the relevant biblical and moral questions that Christian students tempted to refuse to pay back their student loans are really facing. Before the relationship of a college student to a lender is a systematic justice issue (and it very well may be), it IS, in fact, an issue of individual character. Biblical wisdom literature is filled with admonitions both to avoid debt if possible, and to be sure to pay back whatever is borrowed. Refusing to do so is not only a serious legal matter, it is a matter of personal character before God. The Scripture commends the one who keeps his word even when it costs him, and it assumes that Christians keep balanced accounts with others. A plain reading of Biblical wisdom and morality makes clear that refusal to repay what is borrowed is not an option for a Christian.

But–and this is crucial–that is not the same as saying that Christian college students are doomed to become servant-scholars. There are biblically faithful and intelligent ways to deal with crushing student debt. Hopp is correct that the system is broken, but he needs to take this argument further and realize that the system’s biggest fault is the gap between student expectation and reality. Many students are willing to go into serious debt to enter college because they believe a bachelor’s degree is as good as a career. That was never really true, but it’s certainly a fiction in today’s economy. Hopp is right that we need a national conversation, but not a conversation about debt protests; rather, we need a national conversation about university alternatives like community college, technical schools, apprenticeships, and much more.  None of this suggests that four year degrees are bad or wasteful, but it does suggest that their monopoly on the imaginations of students and the aspirations of parents and teachers is a problem.

What about Christians who currently have student loan debt? As we’ve seen, Scripture assumes that Christians are people who pay what they owe to whom they owe it. That doesn’t mean that Christian students shouldn’t reach out for help, whether in the form of deferments or grants. Depending on the severity of the debt and the life situation of the student, putting a hold on further education might be necessary. That’s OK. Taking a semester off to get control of personal finances is not an admission of defeat or a forfeit of the future. Churches and Christian communities can help with this by dismantling the many stigmas around not being enrolled in university. Knowledge and wisdom are not always the same.

Christian universities should lead the way in being honest with prospective students about the costs of tuition, living, and other expenses. Not too long ago I was looking around on the website of Biola University, a Christina liberal arts school in Southern California. A good-sized section of their “Prospective Students” page was dedicated to calculating the cost of attending a private school in Orange County, including a friendly reminder that life there is considerably more expensive than most of the nation. I was impressed with the effort Biola put forth to be transparent with students, even if it meant some students turning away. Where students get in trouble is when recruiters obscure the realities of debt by encouraging incoming freshmen to “just take out a loan.” Christian schools should acknowledge that loan agencies are an option but never encourage students to go into serious debt without thinking soberly about the implications.

A final word to parents and students together: Don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, if you choose university to select a local school and live at home for a while. In many cases the costs of tuition are only a fraction of the cost of living in a college campus. Ignoring the meaningless propaganda about “the college experience,” parents and students can experience a tremendous amount of financial freedom by picking local schools, especially ones that offer in-state tuition benefits. Some Christians unwisely automatically dismiss this as “delayed adulthood,” but I can assure that what happens in most university dorms bears not even a passing resemblance to adulthood. If living in a spare room or basement can empower a student to throw herself into studies and remain financially afloat at the same time, embrace wisdom rather than the stereotype.