The American university system has institutionalized the transition from childhood into adulthood. Students spend the formative years of their adulthood in institutions of higher learning, and those institutions espouse individual values traditionally associated with being an adult. Colleges have embraced the image that they offer a space where teenagers can explore their identities and learn how to be engaged citizens.
With few exceptions, colleges make claims that essentially mark them as liberal institutions. The rhetoric of higher education emphasizes individual liberty, demands various forms of responsibility, and requires that we care about one another. Indeed, to be free from coercion and to honor moral, personal and social commitments is to be an adult. We expect adults to act in accordance with just communal norms, and in return, we grant them the liberty to pursue their life projects. The problem is that more often than not, colleges curtail individual liberties, fail to hold individuals responsible for their actions, and foster communities fueled by alcohol and marred by normalized violence; they treat students like children.
The violence of the university is manifest in the inordinate sexual assaults that occur on college campuses. These assaults reflect broader social assumptions of male superiority and patriarchal gender relations, but they also mark a childish attitude towards sexual relationships. That many male students understand sex as something they deserve, rather than a reciprocal act that represents trust and respect, represents the failure of the university system to teach students to approach one another as adults.
The lack of an assumption that students will act as adults allows universities to abrogate responsibility for those students who violate the dignity of others when they commit sexual assault. It allows police forces and campus sexual assault panels to dismiss reports of sexual violence as the product of a childish inability to understand the adult world of sexuality. Violence becomes a symptom of the childlike inability to control one’s actions. It is impossible to convince students to treat one another like adults when the institutions that govern their communities fail to hold them responsible.
Universities attempt to limit these forms of violence by masking the problem. They blame alcohol and drug use, rather than the mentalities that enable this culture of violence whether a student is sober or not. This shift in blame justifies further paternalistic policies. College health education offices advocate for inordinate punishments against illicit substance use. Students are then placed under the constant watch of RAs, who limit the freedom of students to experiment with and learn the limits of mind-altering substances, including two widely used substances: alcohol and marijuana. Though colleges have public health interests in limiting substance abuse, extant policies unduly limit students’ ability to engage in adult behavior, further fueling the epidemic of binge drinking and irresponsible behavior.
Adult responsibility also entails civic engagement, and, as Henry Giroux notes, universities “have become somnambulant, removed from the necessary noise and bristling questioning of authority and culture of questioning and thinking that they should promote.” Students are not taught to be engaged citizens, but rather are educated according to “a pedagogy of repression and politics of accumulation and management that strips society of any democratic ideals.”
Universities should function as the last outpost of liberalism—dedicated to the equality of participants and the liberty to express ideas—in an increasingly illiberal society. That liberalism requires valuing adulthood over childhood. Adulthood is predicated upon concern for and knowledge of the needs of oneself and others. Without that knowledge, it becomes easy for society to dismiss as childhood “phases” forms of sexual and gender identity, depression or mental illness, and sexual violence. A society of children invites paternalism and immaturity.
—Zack Struver ‘15 is Editor-in-Chief of The Vassar Chronicle.