Most devout Christians seem to recognize that some dangerous and problematic things go on at the standard American college, such as the hookup culture and binge drinking, but most keep sending their kids anyway. I’m not saying they shouldn’t send them. The credential is often quite necessary in this world, but we must not be naive about the reality of the situation. Namely, that the standard American college is inherently *anti-family*.
Of course, it wasn’t always. Colleges, like many other communities and institutions, used to make proactive efforts to recreate the family away from home. They did this because they knew that the family was the basis of human flourishing. Family creates situations of reliability, accountability, and responsibility. It creates situations of love because it demands love; it cannot exist without love. People need to be a part of families in order to learn how to love— in order to learn how to be good and happy people.
When colleges were interested in developing good and happy people, they knew that promoting the family was absolutely necessary. But somewhere along the way colleges became less and less about making people better people. Perhaps it is due, in part, to our recent technological advances and our endless access to knowledge. We just don’t need colleges as much as we used to. So if they want to continue to exist, they must provide us with something else unique and irreplaceable. They must provide us with an experience.
Now, for a select few this experience might be self-discovery, growing up, or even learning. But when most people talk about the “college experience” they mean “time to live for me” or “time to be selfish.” Of course, the only way to create an environment where people can live entirely for themselves is to eliminate any reliance on, accountability to, or responsibility for other people. The only way to create a successful environment of selfishness is to eliminate the family. And the standard American college does this in three clear steps.
First, they take children away from their natural families abruptly, all at once, and often without good reason. Of course, moving out is usually a natural part of growing up. But in most of history and in most societies, children moved out for the sake of some greater purpose — getting married, going away to learn a trade or skill. They moved out because it was a situational necessity, and they moved out when they were personally ready. If the necessity never presented itself, they stayed home. And even those who did move out often remained close to home.
But in our modern era a child graduates from high school, and they are expected to have a clean break from home and family. The break is rarely situationally necessary, and the child is rarely ready. The only reason for moving out is for moving out’s sake. The very point is to get away and, often, to get as far away as possible. Wanting to visit home at all or too frequently is seen as a sign of weakness. There is even pressure to cut off friends from home so as not to be “tied down” by anyone. We would certainly find this tradition absurd if not for the fact that we are so used to it.
Next, colleges put kids in a bizarre environment that is completely contrary to the development of any sort of second family. Outside of professors and tailgates, there are no babies or old people on campus, ever— just teenagers and twenty-somethings living alone like in some dystopian novel.
Youth is glorified and allowed to run wild. There are usually no stand in mothers or fathers, no wise old grandfathers, nobody to advise — unless you need help picking classes — and nobody to caution you. (Free condoms are always available.) With nobody watching out for you or relying on you, it is easy to develop habits of selfishness. It is easy to do whatever you feel like doing, rather than to think about what you should do.
And then, finally, colleges discourage students from forming their own families. The hookup culture is no secret, but the hookup culture is the obvious problem. Plenty of students who don’t participate in it are still swayed by the ethos — by the idea that relationships with the opposite sex are just a fun pastime and nothing serious.
Within mainstream college culture, even among the kids not having casual sex, dating is rare and the topic of marriage is taboo. You aren’t supposed to think about it, talk about it, or even want it. Instead, students are encouraged to prolong their single living as long as possible.
Now, certainly there are people who are meant to stay in school for many years. There are people who are meant to travel the world before settling down. But not everyone is meant for this delay of marriage and children, and yet in college culture it has become the universal prescription. Family is treated as a threat to personal fulfillment and happiness.
And what happens to these students, these young adults? Well, if they don’t waste their four years in full-blown hedonism and their many years after trying to go back, most do develop habits contrary to a good and happy life. I never got drunk in college, and I got engaged to my husband my junior year. I lived an atypical college life, and I am so thankful for that.
But I still look back and see habits that were ridiculous — staying up until 2 in the morning and sleeping until 10, eating macaroni all day, letting my room look like a disaster, sitting through classes that professors took seriously with Facebook pulled up on my computer; all things that seem rather innocent and harmless, but that’s just it. They aren’t innocent and harmless.
They are habits of selfishness. They are habits you form when you don’t have to answer to anybody else, and habits like that are completely contrary to family life. They are contrary to love, and they set you up for unhappiness. College is setting kids up for unhappiness because it is setting them up for loneliness. Sure, it doesn’t feel like loneliness when you’ve got a thousand followers on Instagram and a party every weekend, but we know the truth. We know where that kind of lifestyle ends, and we can’t possibly want that tragedy for our children.
So, again, I’m not saying kids shouldn’t go to college, but we must work to sustain or recreate the family in the life of the college student— whether that is through proximity to their immediate family or through enrollment in an alternative college dedicated to this kind of mission. And we must work to encourage them to create their own families, whether that means marriage or some other sort of centered community life.
We must proactively see to it that college kids are in situations of accountability and responsibility. In the end, the goal should not be that college kids have the best four years of their life. The goal should be that they set themselves up for and embark upon a *good life.*