Reading Tim Clydesdale’s The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School put this professor on edge. I suddenly could see that I had been an inveterate practitioner of, in his memorable phrase, “liberal arts hazing,” the touchingly misguided attempt to get Meaning into the Lives of Our Youth. This notion of “hazing” would cover, I presume, the team-taught course to which half of my load is devoted, Invitation to the Humanities, which includes units on death, love, and the 1960s. By Clydesdale’s lights, we’re nuts.
Why? His reading of a munificence of surveys, interviews, and theoretical studies leaves him contending that first-year college students are decidedly uninterested in grand adventures of most kinds beyond the social. In the “first year out,” he concludes, students stash their souls away in an “identity lockbox.” They devote their main energies not to discovering the world of the academy but rather to surviving the world of the campus—and the two, seemingly, have little connection. Clydesdale’s report is clear and stark: “Except for a handful of teens who become the future intelligentsia . . . the overwhelming majority of teens I studied appeared culturally inoculated against intellectual curiosity and creative engagement.”
As Vonnegut might put it: strong stuff. What’s a humanities professor to do when confronted with, in another of Clydesdale’s disturbing phrases, the students’ “discourse of nonchalance”?
Clydesdale urges us to lie low, radically recalibrate our expectations, and hope for some pedagogical openings in years two and three. Given his framework and data, it’s an altogether reasonable conclusion. It is also a counsel of despair. Rather than accepting it, we might first give Clydesdale’s own discourse a closer look.
The First Year Out is scrupulously social-scientific, guild sociology at its best. The students’ encounters with sex, alcohol, and drugs Clydesdale classifies under the rubric of “managing gratifications.” Students do this “managing” while “navigating relationships,” though “meaningful connections” are often lacking. These varied activities reflect our “American culture’s socialization processes,” which “generate a large proportion of relatively diligent workers” who are for the most shaped by “popular American moral culture”—a culture that may or may not, he thinks, provide “a sufficient basis upon which to construct independent biographies or sustain shared lives.”
What is Clydesdale saying? Better, what language is he speaking? To the extent that these descriptions sound simply like plain English, it’s a sign that we, too, have been “socialized” in the “popular American moral culture” he describes, and have thus learned to think (without thinking) in the lingua franca of the modern American public sphere. It’s a language rooted in the passé but persisting attempt to be “value-neutral,” “universal,” and “objective” in observation—as if Nietzsche had never lived, Derrida had never spoken, and thousands of Ph.D. dissertations had never been written unmasking the fraudulence of this particular language game.
But the game is still being played, and played hard, with arguments against it having little effect against the forces aligned to maintain it. Meanwhile, real argument becomes impossible (you can’t argue with “objectivity”), true diversity is minimized in the name of cordial and controlled obfuscation, and the corporate capitalist (dis)order, rooted in the (scientifically achieved and justified) manipulation of people, animals, and the earth, rolls right along.
Is it conceivable that eighteen-year-old American college students could be brought into a richer relationship with themselves and their world when guided by this tongue (in whatever its disciplinary dialect)? If, as the historian Wilfred McClay puts it, “the relationship to the objects under consideration is always implied by the language we use,” then our turn more than a century ago to naturalistic science for the academy’s master tongue has bonded us to a way of seeing that keeps subject and object detached and facilitates our own continuing evasion of the grand reality that binds us together.
We human beings have no choice but to make moral hay with whatever language we’re tossed, regardless of its purported neutrality vis-à-vis moral questions: This is simply the way the human animal lives. To teach a new vocabulary to a people is to lead them into a new set of relationships with each other, with their past, with their institutions, and with the earth itself. What will these relationships be like? It depends at least in part on how wise the language is—how capacious its vision of reality, how intricate its sense of our circumstance.
What Clydesdale’s study mainly reveals, by both his research and his discussion of it, is the intellectual and moral folly of this, our modern tongue, and why our efforts to do the work of education with it have been so disappointing. If we want to get into our students’ identity lockboxes, I suggest we first break open the academy’s linguistic lockbox.
Eighteen years ago, in his history of the American university, George Marsden noted that in view of the widespread collapse of confidence in the Enlightened quest for scientific objectivity, the academy, if only for the sake of consistency, should welcome—indeed nurture—more linguistic richness. But it’s not just the students, it seems, who wish to guard their identity lockboxes—the academy is guarding its identity tightly, too. Should we be surprised when our students follow suit?
A generous measure of linguistic freedom, a freedom that encourages intellectual exploration at the foundational level of religious, moral, and philosophical pursuit, might not just free up some students for real discovery—it might free the academy, too.
Eric Miller, professor of history at Geneva College, is the author of Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hopes, Spiritual Longing, from which this essay is adapted, and of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.
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