Growing Into Responsibility

August 23, 2010

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine has a long feature piece about “Why Are So Many People in Their 20s Taking So Long To Grow Up?”  It features the work of a Clark University psychologist named Jeffrey Arnett who “is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage,” what he calls “emerging adulthood.”

According to Robin Marantz Henig, the author of the article, Arnett “says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s. Among the cultural changes he points to that have led to “emerging adulthood” are the need for more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years.”

The piece is worth reading, and has occasioned a good deal of discussion (including not a few disagreements) in the blogosphere.  Conor Friedersdorf, for example, writing on The Atlantic’s Daily Dish blog simply says “I am skeptical of the idea that kids today are less mature.”

Is there something different about today’s young adults than in the past?  If so what is responsible for that?  The labor market? The sexual revolution?  Is it a change in maturity?  Or a decrease in opportunity?

This debate was on my mind as I stood up in front of 354 new students to welcome them to Earlham. I understand that Earlham does indeed intend to prepare students for responsible adulthood, and that we intend to do that from the moment they step onto campus.  (We aren’t waiting until they are in their 20s.)  We do that by placing significant responsibilities on them from their first day, and expecting them to live up to those.

Our expectations for living in community are set forth in a terrific document called “Principles and Practices.”  We spent Saturday afternoon talking with new students about these expectations, and asked them to sign a certificate (similar to a Quaker marriage certificate) that states their agreement to live under these expectations.  We will frame and hang their certificate so they can see it regularly as they walk around campus.

Consequently, my welcoming remarks to the new students underscored the new freedoms and especially the new responsibilities they have as members of the college community.

I reminded them that Martin Luther King (in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“) tells us that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

I told them “What we do affects others, for well or ill.  Inescapably, we bear responsibility for one another. That’s true everywhere.  But it’s a positive principle of how we organize education at Earlham.

“In stepping into Earlham, you are stepping across a threshold.  You are stepping into a community that asks – that insists – that each person accord unreserved respect to every other person here.   What does that mean?  Well, a lot.  It means you should listen carefully to one another – listen with the thought that what they are saying might be right.

“It means you should care for one another.  Of course you’ll care for yourself.  (Or at least I hope you will.)  But also care for one another.   It takes courage at times to care for one another, because sometimes it means saying things to another person that s/he doesn’t want to hear.

“You might see someone else engaging in risky behavior.  Or cheating.  And you might feel the temptation to say to yourself  “Well, that’s really none of my business.  That’s his business or her business.”

“And at that moment I hope you’ll remember that phrase from Martin Luther King:  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  If you ever ask yourself: whose business is it to see that we live up to these expectations, I hope you’ll remember that it’s your business.  Because you are in that “network of mutuality.”

“In stepping into Earlham, in stepping across the threshold to this community, you are taking on some new responsibilities.   These responsibilities are laid out for you in a document called “Principles and Practices of the Earlham College Community.”  You’ll be talking about it tomorrow.  I hope you already know it well.  I urge you to read “Principles and Practices” not in just in terms of what you can expect to receive from the Earlham College community, but also (and this is more difficult) in terms of what you expect to contribute.”

That’s our approach to maturity here at Earlham.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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