An Institutional Theory of Boring Youth

Back in April over at Slate (I say that as if this blog is also a place on the Internet which, ha, no), Rebecca Schuman published this article titled “The Sad Demise of Collegiate Fun”; then the most recent edition of The Economist included a lengthy examination of what it terms – referring to people roughly my age – “this generation of hard-working, strait-laced kids”. Both pieces ultimately attribute the boring-ness of me and my peers to parenting, Schuman saying, “The helicopter generation has gone to college, and the results might be tragic for us all,” and The Economist noting, “Yet perhaps the best explanation for this youthful self-control is not the role parents play in young adults’ lives today; it is the way they brought those young adults up. A combination of government initiatives, technology, social pressure and reaction against the follies of the past has improved parenting dramatically.”

And undoubtedly parenting has played a significant role in shaping how my generation has behaved after being released into the halfway house of college and then the wild of independent post-collegiate living. But especially when considering the stultifying stagnation of student life (certainly my years at Middlebury seem rather bland in comparison to the stories I’ve heard from when my parents were undergraduates), I wonder if the institutional response necessitated by increasingly diverse student bodies has inadvertently had the effect of stamping out some of the goofy, creative, weird behavior for which small liberal arts colleges are commonly known.*

Say what you want about diversity at a place like Middlebury (as it happens I think they do a decent job of it, though of course reasonable people can disagree), but one suspects it hosts a far less uniform student body than it used to, and this is undoubtedly true of higher education as a whole. And the less homogeneous the student body, the more things like discrimination (or just flat-out offending the crap out of somebody who’s coming at things informed by a completely different set of experiences) become legitimate issues on campus, and the more institutions need to, well, institutionalize how they deal with such things. As long as Middlebury was just a bunch of male WASPS, the unwritten rules and cultural expectations of WASP-dom could be relied upon to govern students’ behavior. These days, that approach is a recipe for endless lawsuits (to say nothing of the very real social damage it could potentially engender).**

So to avoid potential discrimination, and to ensure students receive consistent treatment from faculty and staff regardless of sex, gender, race, socio-economic status, religion, etc, institutions write a whole mess of impersonal rules designed to be implemented without allowing much room for discretionary action. The unintended result is a culture in which everything is official and organized. Obviously this only gets you so far – if helicopter parenting (or, to take The Economist’s characterization, also generally better parenting) has so conditioned children to fear free play by the time they head off to college that they’d default to studying and scheduled club activities leavened with ritualized binge drinking no matter what, then the rigid rules of American colleges and universities aren’t doing a whole lot of deterrent work. On the other hand, Middlebury apparently considered me a “suspect” (see incident D0724 here) for digging a gorgeous fire pit (see below) in service of an Easter lamb roasting, so they’re probably not helping much either.***

Easter Lamb Roast







*For the record, I’m strongly in favor of more diverse student bodies – what follows isn’t at all intended as some sort of backdoor argument for collegiate homogeneity
**I don’t plan to discuss the impact of America’s absurd predilection for suing people, but surely leaving aside issues of discrimination colleges have been compelled to clamp down on their students’ activities in order to avoid liability
***Also worth noting in that same Public Safety log is incident D075o, in which students are written up for lacking the proper paperwork to have an open fire in…a fire pit. It mentions MPD, which I assume is actual Middlebury police, so maybe this paperwork is a municipal issue and not a college one. But if it is the latter, it would seem to be evidence in favor of the “excessive rules restrain student behavior” thesis. Also, thank fucking god we somehow managed to not only roast a lamb for 8+ hrs but also have multiple fires all while escaping detection