What do young adults need to be happy? A recent article about the elimination of Stanford University fraternity houses and other “themed” residence halls got me thinking about this question.
In an article entitled “Stanford’s War on Social Life” published in Palladium magazine, Ginevra Davis reports about how once – not too long ago – this much-loved West Coast institution was fun. It tells the story of elaborate pranks pulled by Stanford students – which were clever but certainly not boring – including the creation of an island in the middle of a man-made lake on campus. Today, she writes, students seem “aimless and alone” in a new social order that she says “offers a glimpse of the bureaucrat’s vision for America.”
“It’s a world without risk, with no real difference, or the kind of group connection that makes teenagers want to rent bulldozers and build islands. It’s a largely joyless world without mishap; without the kind of cultural specificity that makes college, or the rest of life, particularly interesting.
While a number of colleges – including Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Colby College in Maine – have ended Greek life overall it has been a slow process in most places.
The campaign to eliminate fraternities at Stanford was, according to Davis, much more successful than at other schools because the administration shut them down one by one rather than issuing a general policy. And with good reason. In recent years, fraternities have been the scene of far worse things than teenage hijinks. Like Caitlin Flanagan documented in his cover story in The Atlantic a few years ago, the level of alcohol consumption, combined with the unique power of these institutions, has resulted in countless injuries, assaults and deaths – all with little accountability.
But there is no doubt that these groups fill a need. And it’s a need that has continued to grow, perhaps even more so in recent years.
Long ago, students had a clear goal. Schools were almost entirely religious, and students were expected to become religious leaders, or at least enter a profession with a greater knowledge of their faith. Over time, as schools disconnected from their sponsoring churches and more and more research universities and secular schools developed, students were expected to understand the latest scientific findings and bring advancements to the humanity. Not all students would do this, of course, but the purpose of education was clear.
It now appears that there is an inverse correlation between the time schools spend developing mission statements and the actual understanding students have of the purpose of their education. As college offers have become the darkest (and silliest) of subjects and higher education is now touted as the best plan for everyone, many students are beginning to wonder what they’re supposed to. do exactly. If higher education is just vocational training, schools should make that clear. Students can find an apartment near a particular school and take classes. But they shouldn’t expect a university to do anything to develop their character or identity or provide them with any community.
It was once possible to avoid the complete lack of purpose on campus with extracurricular activities. Sports team camaraderie has always been an option. Single-sex education also created an atmosphere where students were more likely to have some type of bond. But that, too, has all but disappeared from the landscape of higher education.
What’s left? Students who enjoy debating, hiking, or quizzing can still find a way to enjoy their hobbies together, but these types of activities are unlikely to give students the kind of structure or the sense of mission that the religious setting once offered. Fraternities aren’t the perfect replacement for all of that, but you can see how much students need that sense of belonging, especially after all the isolation they’ve been experiencing during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
I saw this play out with a friend’s son, who was enrolled in a university doing distance learning after December break last year. He returned to campus anyway because the fraternity rush was happening in person even when classes weren’t taking place.
The colleges have tried to socially organize the sense of belonging that these other social, religious, and academic missions once created. As Davis writes, Stanford introduced a new housing system, “designed to promote ‘justice‘ and ‘community‘ on the campus. Under this system, new freshmen would be assigned to one of eight artificially created housing clusters called “neighborhoods”, each containing a representative sample of on-campus housing. To avoid the potential controversy of naming them, the administration reversed the decision and called the S, T, A, N, F, O, R and D quarters.
It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, not a recipe for helping real human beings feel welcome or part of something bigger than themselves.
Davis notes that 71% of college students nationwide say they are “very sad” and she wonders if sad students are just lonely.
“Our old fraternity houses have been filled with desks to help us feel better, and we are sadder and sicker than any generation before. If you’re sad, Stanford has an office building with a number you can call and a series of “community conversationsabout neurodiversity. But what if you’re just miserable spending your days alone, in your lettered house and numbered room?
She doesn’t have an answer, or maybe she just doesn’t want to go.
As for this island that members of the Stanford fraternity built in 1993, it is barely visible today. First the students were banned from it because of an endangered salamander, and finally the university let it dry up. No man is an island, but sometimes a man needs one.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor, and the author of “No way to treat a child: how the foster care system, family courts and racial activists are destroying the lives of young people“, among other books.