This post is the third in a little series on college students and the worrisome choices they make. I’ve been thinking about the naive anthropology (theorizing about human beings, what we’re made of, how we’re designed, what are our problems and difficulties) that drives policy in higher education.
The “bad choices” mantra that I’ve been criticizing is based on a view of humans as rational and autonomous, at least in private matters. Rationality is understood as the ability to exercise the right mental calculus in pursuit of one’s interests, most often described in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. For example, as I have shared in other posts, the college party culture reveals the risks students are willing to take – the costs they are potentially willing to pay – for the sake of the benefits they receive. Thomas Van der Venn’s sociological analysis in his book Getting Wasted (http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Wasted-College-Students-Drink/dp/0814788327/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374941662&sr=8-1&keywords=getting+wasted), which I have mentioned elsewhere, ably describes this phenomenon. He shows clearly how students can consider even the grossest, most disgusting, unpleasant parts of party culture (sickness, loss of bodily control, hangovers, blacking out) as a social benefit, because they do it with their friends, they support each other, they take care of each other.
University officials try to counter this moral culture with a different cost-benefit approach. We deploy increasingly sophisticated training sessions that dole out useful information, assuming that more of the right information (more cleverly communicated) will help student makes better choices. I applaud the fact that schools are developing recovery communities on campus and helping students with getting started toward recovery. I’m not against this practice. Certainly people need useful information and I can imagine that for those students already sensitized to the dangers, or who are otherwise attuned, the information does prevent some bad choices. But for too many students, more information and training is wasted on them. Mandatory training sessions better not be the only tools in our toolkit. We need an explicitly moral vision.
So, let’s try a little exercise in moral reasoning. Let’s try an old fashioned word – “lust” – to get at the inclinations that pervert and mystify our choices. Not the sexual kind of lust. Everybody knows that already, thanks to cheap romance novels and porn. Let’s think of lust as any kind of disordered desire. That the desire is disordered is known as such because we place it against an accepted, trusted moral reference point. Let’s try lust for glory and, since I grow increasingly concerned about the condition and fate of young men, I’ll use something familiar to them.
Why does a young man drink so hard, so heavily, to the point of alcohol poisoning? One of the reasons is glory. He wants to prove that he’s man enough to handle it. If he can prove that he’s man enough, he’ll have the approbation (glory) of his peers. He will have shown that he can rise to the challenge, that he can take it, that he can stand with the best of them. He’ll be a man among men. He’ll have respect, status, standing. This is the benefit that they desire.
(Sidebar: For the sake of clarity of comparison, one of my expert colleagues shows a Power Point slide to indicate students’ motives for drinking “back then” in the 60s and 70s and students’ motives now. “Back then,” students generally drank to “get a buzz.” They could overdo it, of course, but the motive was basically to feel loose and sociable without getting out of control. These days, a major motive is to drink until you’re plastered [“shit-faced” as students call it], out of control, on the verge of unconsciousness – but you’re still standing. Or maybe not.)
Lust for glory is not the same as desire for acceptance. Desire for acceptance is the normal, natural, appropriate desire of a social animal like humans. Lust for glory involves not only acceptance, but distinction, to set oneself apart, to be known for the ability to do something. Desire for distinction can be a good thing, if properly-ordered. But in the hard partying college culture, it isn’t. Lust, therefore, is a desire disordered. (What causes the disorder? That’s a question for another time.) The only check to the seduction of lust for glory is a proper moral vision and the moral courage to stay true to a better end. It takes vision, modeling and mentoring from more experienced people, and practice, to become morally courageous.
The cure for the lust for glory thus involves imparting a vision to young men of their better selves, to appeal to that which lies already in their hearts. To do so requires honesty and transparency. We all struggle with disordered desires, but we also know other desires, created into us by God, part of the image of God in every human being. Young men feel and know this, too. Let’s help them think about it, grapple with it, try it on.
We don’t impose this moral vision. We impart it. And students (young men) catch it. They don’t catch it much through training and information distribution. They catch it through relationships – real, organic, and intentional, though not overly-structured. Maybe it’s a bit too simplistic to say, but I think it makes an important point: young men become good by hanging around good men whose transparency shows that goodness truly lies in their hearts.
If all we do is train and dispense information, we will mis-form, de-form, college students. This is a serious danger to which we in higher education seem blind. It takes more than training and information. It takes a clear, consistent, practiced moral vision, rooted in relationships. May colleges and universities find appropriate ways to re-instill this vision and the relevant practices. And may United Methodist-related schools model the way.