Yesterday morning I listened to an NPR report on efforts by officials at the University of Virginia to reduce the harm done by student drinking. There was a curious conflict that emerged between the misguided worldviews of university authorities and their young customers. More about that in a moment. First, I want to suggest that "customers" is precisely the right word, where once we would have called these students "charges." In place of a comprehensive training in academics and virtue, there is now the a la carte curriculum. Rather than a series of trials and challenges designed to uproot weakness, there are counselors and sensitivity seminars. Instead of guidance into a broader understanding of creation and its Maker, there are layers of sophistry that tickle the mind. Make no mistake; these little revenue sources stopped being charges a long time ago.
And part of the arrangement that makes a typical university so appealing to a hormone-laden teenager is its willingness to pretend that he is an adult, decades after it relinquished all meaningful efforts to help make him one. Thus does the University of Virginia play the hip young uncle by informing and wheedling and gently abetting the young bacchanalians in their violation of decorum and law? Officials are right that they can't police 20,000 youngsters who want to drink alcohol. And even if it occurred to them that they could limit admissions only to students serious about becoming educated adults, they would face the reality that this would effectively shutter their school. Universities like UVa exist because they are willing to serve as elaborate playgrounds for thousands of young people. Most of the serious students, meanwhile, go to The King's College or St. John's College or the U.S. Naval Academy.
The irony is that universities justify their abandonment of virtue standards by claiming that their students are adults, able to make their own decisions about what courses are best, about sexual activity, about consuming alcoholic beverages. There was a time when genuine scholars would have treated this as the testable hypothesis that it is, and thereby judged the rampant alcohol abuse, fornication, and general slovenliness on a typical U.S. campus as proof of its falsehood.
And here is where the aforementioned conflict between UVa administrators and students emerges. One of the students interviewed for the NPR segment explained simply that 18- to 20-year-old kids will do what they want. Kids. He is exactly right. There was a time when 20 year olds were men and women. The institutions that once served to cultivate adulthood seem to be fading, however, leaving us surrounded by grown humans who ought to know better about a host of things, but don't, and don't even have the shame to realize that being a kid is, well, childish.