Jun 10, 2024

the how and the why

This is likely to be the first in a series of meditations on the college decision-making process. My two younger kids are embarking on the process now, so I’m thinking about the subject personally; my job as a professor means I’m thinking about it in my workplace, too. And I hardly need to say that the big questions are in the zeitgeist after this academic year: What kind of four-year experiences are worth paying for? What’s available in that developmental window that can be nurtured and drawn out in young people? For people who go to college, that period is one of the hinge moments to adulthood that can be life-changing in lasting ways. How should a parent think about it?

Any time I express consternation about this subject, most people will jump to remind me, with a smug little side-hug, that it’s not me going to college. And what they mean is: as a parent, my job is to array the affordable choices for my children to see clearly, and then to step out of the way while my children choose. Whatever they’re into, I’m meant to support it. That’s the mature psychological way to do this, the thinking goes. Don’t make it about you, they say, knowingly. You’d be micro-managing.

But this is the first of many parenting presuppositions that make up the cultural water we’re swimming in and therefore can’t see. We imagine our children as maybe-slightly-immature but essentially fully-formed selves. Our job is framed as clearing the obstacles only; we’re tasked with whatever passive supports will help our children optimize themselves on their own terms. Whatever the good life is will be self-defined by our kids; who are we, as their parents, to say? The philosopher Agnes Callard calls this “acceptance parenting”:

[P]arents have always aimed at the happiness of their child. What’s radically new is not, at heart, how concerned or permissive we’ve become, but how fully we have given over to our children the job of defining “happiness.” For acceptance parents, neither instinct nor culture is a sufficient guide to what counts as acceptable behavior in a child. Instead of being able to draw on culture and tradition to set standards relative to which children are to be assessed, those standards now come from the people they are to be applied to — more specifically, from future, which is to say, not yet existent, versions of those people.

When I talk to fellow parents, I’m reminded that we’re all carrying around an incoherent mishmash of ideas about what strong parenting looks like: which behaviors and habits children should choose versus those which parents direct. What good might be offered by chores, or manners, or constraints of any kind. In my urban east coast environment, there’s a tacit default to kids’ self-defined “authenticity” as the best driver of behavior. If Gen Z kids don’t want to do something, Gen X parents worry that “forcing” them to do so would be a dismissal of their feelings and therefore a fracture in trust. (My working theory generally of Gen X parenting is that we’re all wounded by our Boomer parents, whose combination of authoritarian and “free range” parenting behaviors in the 70s amounted to top-down edicts and/or near-neglect. The reaction is to seek easy connection with our Gen Z babies, maintaining even friend-like egalitarianism at all costs. But this is forever the conundrum: you can’t parent your contemporary kids in the way past-you needed, when the world was a different place. And your kid is not you. Etcetera.)

When my teenagers play patiently and attentively with someone’s much younger children at a party, people will compliment me warmly: They were so kind! I thank them but also tell them plainly that my kids were instructed to do so — they are no more naturally and authentically generous hosts as adolescents than anyone else. We just don’t make it optional at our house. And they’re old enough now to see the fruits of constraining their natural impulses. When you behave in prosocial ways, the prosocial feeling will often follow, not lead.

This is what Callard means by “drawing on culture and tradition” — if I insist, in small ways, that my kids experience the tiny virtues of hospitality by doing first, learning later, I show them what most global cultures have understood for centuries: that hosting people in one’s home is an art and a vital part of the social fabric, and that it’s a choice to practice it, with and without authentic fellow-feeling as a precondition. And, needless to say, a parent only earns good compliance in constraints if a child also sees his or her choices honored and supported elsewhere. It’s a mix that has to be grounded in strong relationship.

I think college should also be a mix of choices and constraints on a young person’s natural impulses — which is, of course, the longstanding “liberating” ideal of the liberal arts. Some classes you choose, but some you don’t. Instead, you’re exposed to some common educational experiences that set you on a path to freedom by means you didn’t select, but that were selected for you, drawn from culture(s) and tradition(s). This is an aspiration toward freedom in the true sense: By encountering difficult and foreign ideas, we are freed from the natural parochialism of our immature brains and our many subcultures, freed from unthinking loyalty to whatever creeds and norms shaped our families and early schooling. We practice putting some air and light between our lazy generalizations about the world and the world-as-others-see-it, and we have prudential equipment for life. We are free from any one entrenched idea running our show.

Yuval Levin points to this as the need for formation to be free. It’s an old and celebrated idea, not unique to Levin. But he helpfully contrasts formation with the opposite incentives powering most contemporary institutions and media: that the self needs not formation but instead (acceptance-style) “platforms” for actualization. Just decide what your values are, we tell young people. And then live them out. As though each person could absorb a vapor of morality and politics and ethics, unaided, and produce a program for living from whole cloth. “Platforms” are needed to boost the atomized self alone. Formation, liberal-arts style, brings us in concert with the most durable historical ideas we should consider, internalize, reject or reform. Most “student-centered” educational models are structured to maximize choices of all kinds, with a facile, acceptance-led view of freedom. My own view is that true student-centeredness would require the paces of formation, in the pursuit of a freedom that has a better chance of making us both wise and happy. Not all people need college to be free and happy and wise. But if you’re academically inclined and capable enough to go to college, the liberating arts should arrive to shape you.**

So I don’t think my job is to just facilitate my kids’ shopping for a vibe-mood-and-maybe-my-major college selection experience. I think they need formative experiences to be free. But formation is in short supply everywhere! I don’t get very far, even among fellow professors, when I bring this up. The autonomy-led, buffet-style, platform-burnishing model for higher education is thoroughly internalized in most places. You have to look pretty far and wide to find a strong sense of mission for forming young people into their free future selves. In upcoming posts I’ll walk through some of my research and working criteria for thinking through this mix of choices and constraint for my own family.

Part 2 is here.

**In one of my future posts, I’ll talk about the ways having one child with Down syndrome, and therefore not traditionally college-bound, has also shaped my convictions about the liberal arts.