As I look at the title of this post, I can’t but think of Jane Austen. Given her interest in the emotional life, that reference may be more than coincidental.
In parents’, teachers’, professors’ and Student Life staffs’ conversations, it is common to hear someone say, “So and so (student) made a bad choice.” True. A bad choice s/he made (says Yoda). But is that all that is going on? Just a bad choice? What murky forces motivated the bad choice?
I remember well, when our now-grown children were in school, hearing education professionals say, “There are no bad people, only good people who make bad choices.” Hm. Motivated by understandable and laudable desires to speak positively and supportively of children and young people (for we sometimes do make bad choices), I think it stems from – to use theological jargon – a flawed anthropology, with seriously troubling circumstances, especially for college students.
In spite of serious work on awareness of structural evil and various power imbalances, much student-related activity in higher education still assumes the Enlightenment notion that, at bottom, human beings are rational beings for whom freedom means autonomy (the right to do what I want as long as it’s legal and I don’t hurt anybody else; the right to be left alone). Most of the attention relative to freedom goes to various forms of political and civic freedoms. Obviously, there is much value in this view. In this sense, all of us are liberals.
Furthermore, college is understood to be about learning how to handle new freedoms – being away from home and direct parental oversight, that is, to begin learning on one’s own, so to speak, how to live like an adult. Freedom in this sense, likewise, is mostly a good. Young people do need to learn how to handle freedom and they do need to learn how to live like adults.
But all of the foregoing – for all its value – is wide of the mark when it comes to – to use the theological jargon again – anthropology. Here I speak not of the academic discipline, but of the sub-category of Christian systematic theology. Anthropology in this framework has to do with understanding human nature and the condition in which we find ourselves. It has two parts: how God created us (God’s intentions, designs, etc.) and what we humans have become in actual “real life” experience. Here the picture becomes decidedly more complex.
Consider this scenario: I am an 18 year old college freshman, away from home for the first time (at least, for any length of time) and excited to live the full college experience. I come to school with a sincere faith in Christ and a desire to live faithfully and well as a Christian. But I have other desires, too. I want to be where the action is. I want to meet new people, have fun, make friends, have a good time. I’ve gotten to know some kids in my residence hall and they are really cool. I’d like to hang out with them and get to know them better. They tell me about a party they’re going to and invite me to come along. People are drinking and having fun. I don’t want to look like a dork. How do I fit in? How do I look cool? Besides, I’m curious about the “buzz” people talk about when they drink. Maybe I’ll try…
Here we see a not entirely rational “conversation” with oneself. We see choices, but more than choices. We see inclinations toward a certain behavior, based on certain desires.
Consider this scenario: she is an attractive, ambitious and active student on campus. It is very important for her to be liked, to be seen with the “right people” and to run in the right circles. She meets a handsome young man in one of her classes and they start hanging out. Soon, he invites her to his dorm room. They do what college kids do. They hook up. At the start, it’s just a little more or less innocent making out. It gets progressively “hotter.” She likes him and she’s kind of into the “moment,” but she also has qualms. She begins to worry about his full intentions. How far does she go? When does she stop? How does she stop?
Now, mix in some alcohol. Both students have had enough to be impaired (it doesn’t take that much). Is she still acting freely? Is he? Was she acting freely from the start? How will she feel about herself the next morning? (I know, it sounds like an old country song, but the feelings are dreadfully real.) This student was inclined to go along with certain behaviors that, in the moment maybe seemed sort of OK, but not really, not in her best interest, not according to her values. One set of desires inclined her to act against another set of desires. Freedom? Yes and no. It’s complicated…
In both cases we could say that these students “just made a bad choice” and that would be half true. And that’s the problem: half truths are often as bad as whole lies.
What the bad choices analysis simply does not address are the deeper, murkier, mixed motives – the inclinations – that we feel and often cannot understand. How often have I, after the fact, looked back on something I did and said, “What was I thinking?”
We are good at recognizing power disequilibrium between people and in groups. What about the struggle that goes on within a person? It, too, is a type of power struggle – the good that I would, I do not. I do the thing that, in my clearer, more rational moments, I hate. I think our popular and, to some degree, academic, explanations simply don’t do the job.
I have not space in this post to explore the contours of the human soul, but I will say this: academic institutions with Student Life policies that are driven solely by the Enlightenment understanding of human beings as free and rational – therefore they should be autonomous – are dealing young people a bad hand.