Are we delaying maturation on college campuses?
That was the central question posed at a conference hosted by Dartmouth College on Saturday. The free and public event was organized by James Bernard Murphy, professor of government and faculty director of the Daniel Webster Project at Dartmouth, partly in response to recent controversies on college campuses around freedom of speech issues.
“Several things converged that led me to convene the conference,” Murphy said the day before the conference. “I’m writing a book on human development that looks at ways we divide human life into stages; and in the course of my research I began looking at models of human development.”
One of those models is neoteny, a term that comes from two Greek words meaning “prolonged youthfulness.” Human beings have the longest period of gestation, childhood and sexual immaturity of any species. From an evolutionary perspective, Murphy said, one of the benefits of this prolonged childhood is the potential for learning; and he likened the developmental delay to an ancient truism about archery: the more we pull the arrow backward, the farther it can go forward.
On the sociological side, over the past 50 years, the markers of adulthood, such as marriage, jobs and having children are being attained at ever-older ages, Murphy said. In 1960, the median age for marriage for a man was 22.8 and for a woman was 20.3; in 2010 it was 29.2 and 26.1, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In his proposal for the conference, Murphy wrote that by many measures, young people today are much more immature than in even the recent past. He added that we are conflicted about our children: on the one hand we want to prepare them for adulthood and on the other hand we want to protect them from it.
“A lot of the controversies we are now having about college life — the rape crisis, speech codes and political correctness — are fundamentally rooted in an ambivalence about whether college students are children or adults,” Murphy said. “Alcohol policies are a great example of this: Do you treat students as adults, who if they violate the drinking laws get the full force of the law; or do you try to deal with it through internal procedures, which prevents them from feeling the full effects of the law?”
He added that the disagreements and controversies are predicated on assumptions about whether students are children or adults, and the conference sought to facilitate discussion on that point.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, research professor in the psychology department at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., gave the keynote address, titled “Will The Millennials Ever Grow Up?”
“I’m happy to tell you the answer is yes,” began Arnett. “People were asking the same question 25 years ago about Generation X and they did grow up, they just grew up later than before, and the same thing is true now. All the trends that had begun at that time have become more prominent.”
Arnett, author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, argued that the stereotypes about millennials being selfish, lazy, indulged narcissists are not only untrue, but may represent the last respectable prejudice.
“I have inadvertently become their defender,” Arnett said. “I am a social scientist first and foremost and if I felt like I had evidence they are all those nasty things people say they are, I would tell you. It’s absolutely contradictory to what I’ve found in 25 years of doing research and reading other people’s research.”
In the Q&A following the keynote, Joe Asch, a Dartmouth alum and a sponsor of the conference, pushed back against Arnett’s presentation, saying we ask very little of millennials, that we tiptoe around them, and that we should stop spoiling them.
“Students seem to feel that they should be taken care of, and if they have worries and anxieties it’s up to the college to help them out, as if they are in a childcare center and a provider has to come running,” said Asch, who is the owner of the River Valley Club.
In her presentation, “Juvenilization and Self-Esteem at Schools: Are we prolonging childhood by our attempt to promote self-esteem in school?,” Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, argued that the emphasis on preserving self-esteem gives children an inflated view of their abilities.
“How it works now is if you just show up, and even in some cases if you don’t show up, they give you a trophy; if you sit on the fence you get a trophy; if you suck you still get a trophy. Everyone’s trophy is the same size no matter who wins or loses, or they don’t keep score. Then there’s this idea in some elementary school classes that you should not correct mistakes because it could harm their self-esteem. Early on, there’s this idea that we need to boost self esteem and boost self confidence.”
Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before, presented research showing that in the U.S., the group with the lowest self-esteem is Asian-Americans, who have the best academic performance.
“It does really belie the idea that self-confidence is the key to success. Clearly it’s not,” Twenge said, adding that self-esteem can cause problems if it’s not based in reality.
The final presentation, “Speech Codes on Campus: How do campus restrictions on speech prolong juvenility among students?,” was given by Kenan Malik, a lecturer and broadcaster based in London.
Malik, author of The Quest for a Moral Compass, made a strong argument against the emergence of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” saying that free speech is often discussed in a narcissistic manner.
“Free speech from this perspective, requires not a robust exchange of ideas, but the validation of my views. I should have the right to tick off anyone that I wish, but criticism of my views is seen in a sense as a denial of my free speech.”
Malik’s presentation generated an articulate rebuttal from Dartmouth senior Chileta Dim, who argued that safe spaces for debate preserve time and energy for action. She and Malik had a thoughtful, nuanced debate on the question, with other attendees interjecting alternate views.
Speaking after the conference, Asch said, “Anytime you can get some acknowledged experts together to discuss the world around you it’s got to be fascinating. Today’s students seem to be a different type, they have different motivations and different concerns from 10-15 years ago, and it’s interesting to try and understand that.”
Jaimie Seaton is a freelance writer based in Hanover. Her work appears in theWashington Post, The Guardianand numerous other publications.