Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Department of Bad Ideas: The university as a really big homeschool

Commenters have been observing for some time that the campus activism of the past few years (arguably the past 25 years) has differed from its 1960s predecessor in requiring more adult oversight and intervention rather than trying to overthrow adult authority on campus in the name of student liberation. Student demands always include hiring more professors and administrators - that is, more adults - to provide them with desired goods and services, which include everything from identity representation to counseling to punishing their on-campus enemies. This pro-paternalist tendency is easily seen from the outside, but not something students themselves have usually admitted or perhaps even recognized, and for obvious reasons given the negative connotations of the term.

But now suddenly everyone has decided that open paternalism is exactly what the university should aspire to! Ok, well, maybe not "paternalism," but some nicer-sounding synonyms like "family" and "home." Seizing on a now-removed student op-ed lamenting the failure of the writer's Yale dorm to be a good family to her, the commenters have decided that the goal of modeling the university on the nuclear family is a reasonable and even noble one, and it's what schools are promising anyway, so they may as well live up to it:
Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students’ social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they’re deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them...The students’ preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security—from violence to financial insolvency—that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures.
This is a rapid change in rhetoric. Did UChicago advertise its housing system in these familial terms when we attended? I recall a lot of boasting of the relative amenities of different dorms, but no promises of surrogate parents to lure us in. However, I just discovered that the U of C was planning to close and sell all of its so-called "satellite dorms" - the smaller buildings that are more than two feet from the main quad - and herd all the students to within hugging distance of one another. So I decided to look at the housing website, and lo and behold, it is now brimming with familial rhetoric about "caring for one another" and resident heads who "share their family lives with you." Times have changed, and become extremely creepy.

So we might wonder whether a university can be made to resemble a home and family. There is homeschooling, after all, so education at home is possible. And maybe if college students were typically orphans, the university would be an appropriate sort of institutional homeschool and surrogate parent. But since they're not and they come from already-existing families, how will the university home-family relate to the original home-family? What if its family values are at odds with those of a birth family - which "family" takes precedence?

Suk and Lind seem to assume that modeling a university on the family will bring about fundamental ideological harmony among its members so that adversarial dispute can be replaced by "support" and "nurture." But the more siblings there are in a family, the greater the potential for fraternal conflict, and the less parental support and nurture there is to go around to soothe it. So what can we expect from a family of 25,000 siblings? Perhaps we can expect 25,000 parents, in the form of additional administrators hired to provide additional nurture and support. But then we'd really have 25,000 different families, each student with his own nurturing administrator-father empathizing with him against each of the others, rather than one big one.

And what about the disciplinary and punitive aspects of family life that are completely overlooked by all this focus on support and nurture? Suk writes that "a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent," but parents don't just dish out unconditional empathy; they also dish out punishment, rebuke, shame, guilt. Insofar as families are places of any sort of unconditional acceptance, this tends to mean that they continually forgive their own black sheep no matter how terribly they behave, which on this analogy means giving a free pass to the very students whom the activists accuse of racism and exclusion, etc. and ask Dean Mom and Resident Head Dad to restrain or punish. And isn't there something disingenuous about claiming to want university authorities to be like your parents, and then calling for their removal when they don't respond to you the way you'd prefer? Parents are probably the only authorities whom you can't fire or replace at will, and by seeking it, don't students behave more like consumers or voters than sons and daughters?

This all suggests, as Phoebe has also noted (somewhere?), that the residential college is either overtaxed (if you want to see it as a passive victim), or it that it has overreached. It's one thing to provide decent room and board for students while they're studying far from their real home, assuming that such communal living arrangements will come with their share of conflicts as well as camaraderie. Under these circumstances, dorm residents remain primarily students, and are only incidentally boarders. But it's quite another thing to elevate dormitory living to the university's guiding purpose, and to promise a constantly fulfilling social life free of strife and slight in them. Characterizing the whole operation as a kind of therapeutic family dedicated to student mental health, as Lind hopes, transforms students into sickly orphans. And what does that make the rest of the university? Can it remain an institution devoted to research and study when its students are primarily to be viewed as fragile or damaged children in need of care instead of education? Or will it have to become an orphans' sanitarium?

As I've said before, these sorts of arguments and policies which infantilize adults and discourage adulthood are almost always bad news. When politics starts to get all intimate with you and tells you that the state is your daddy and its citizens are all your brothers, that is usually a good cue to channel your inner libertarian individualist and run away. To be someone's child is to be dependent on, ruled by, and obligated to obey this person. This is fine when you actually are a child, but perhaps you can imagine how quickly things can degenerate when you're an adult encountering other adults who just want to take care of you, and all you have to do in return is surrender some, or maybe all, of your liberty. Maybe that's a reasonable trade-off so long as you're sure your new caregivers have only your best interest at heart. Just like it's no problem to "weaken free speech protections in the name of sensitivity" when you're "sure that [your] version of sensitivity will prevail."

A university is not the state of course, but the same opportunity for despotism appears in other associations that model themselves on the family. Only churches seem to be capable of sustaining the paternal model of authority, but I'm not sure that American universities are quite ready to become religions and elevate their paternal figures into gods. Fraternal relationships can work as models for small and exclusive associations since sibling relations are more flexible and less hierarchical than parental ones. But even fraternal associations get less effective and more scary the bigger the "brotherhood" in question becomes. The family is the first and most basic unit of civic life, and so a perennially tempting model for the rest of civil society, but it's unlike all other associations. You only get one set of parents, and once you leave them, you need to figure out how to have other kinds of relationships with people that aren't paternal or parental. Adulthood opens other ways to find support and nurture - marriage, friendship - that allow us to move beyond the parental relationship and avoid collapsing everything into it. Even "in a world that is genuinely frightening and unjust," as Suk puts it (and when was the world otherwise?), you will probably be better off living off-campus than in a creepy dorm that wants to adopt you as its child and envelop you in a long, suffocating group hug.


Alex said...

I didn't read this whole entry, but I remember our resident heads- a married couple with a baby- providing a homey space within the chaos of our first year dorm, and thinking that the school probably had a preference for resident heads with families, for that purpose. Most schools just have undergraduate RA's, not graduate student RH's, so the fact that we had both probably means the school has been thinking this way for a while, but maybe not as explicitly they now are.

Miss Self-Important said...

I thought the university preferred married RHs b/c they seemed more mature and less likely to shack up with the undergrads? I don't recall most of them having kids though, usually just pets. It's true that the dorms tried to be homey in the sense of comfortable, otherwise no one would pay the premium to live in them. But did you ever feel like our RHs were there to parent us, or for that matter, that I was like your sister? (Incidentally, I was thinking about what it would mean for the university to be a family and realized that among other things, it would mean that we are both married to our brothers.) They seemed to be primarily facilitators of group activities, and they might be called on to "care" for us in emergencies, like if we got alcohol poisoning or needed to go to the hospital for some other reason. But in day to day life, they were just the adult people living in our dorm that you made small talk with at dinner.