Saturday, February 25, 2012

Responsibility and the Art of Hurtful Dodging

Try as we might, there is really no way to avoid responsibility.  It will always settle, like water, into a low place if that is all we can aspire to.  This is sometimes a hard-won lesson for many college students and their families.  In the boiling kettle that is emerging adulthood many students encounter experiences with responsibility, whether they themselves assume that responsibility or not.  Some have difficulties with roommates but retreat into silence or sticky note communications, or perhaps ask to be reassigned to another room.  Some skip class too often and also try to skip out on the inevitable conversation about grades.  Some overindulge in partying or any of the innumerable forms of gluttony, then pass along troubles to others through distractions and problems with sleep or health or relationships or the law.  But no matter the manifestation someone, somewhere, will always pay.  Sometimes the student will pay, but maybe much, much later in life.  Sometimes it is the parents who pay.  Sometimes, when the water is allowed to gather in the lowest place possible, it will be someone who wasn't really expecting this but finally says "Enough!"  That might be a friend, or a judicial affairs officer, or a counselor, or the court.

That teenagers and young adults attempt such maneuvering is nothing new, of course.  Somewhere deep in a French cave there is probably a drawing of a hungry and worried Neanderthal parent trying to rouse a hairy teen from slumber on a warm rock, as a herd of juicy beasts passes by their dwelling.  Hey, at least they didn't have cell phones!  This form of dodging is well known by all of us, because we all tried it and either learned the easy way or the hard way that it doesn't work too well.  What does appear to be a more recent phenomenon is older adults, those who are responsible for guiding the young into successful adulthood, engaging in their own dodging, and with atrocious consequences for themselves and their charges.

Most folks who work in higher education environs can cite examples of parents who did not or could not say "Enough!" and hold their adult children responsible.  Perhaps oddly given the term, what has been called the "helicopter parent", the parent who hovers over schools and other systems, and strikes with ferocity when the institution "didn't do its job correctly", is frequently an example of a parent who is failing to hold students responsible, especially for rather ordinary problem solving.  Just as the hairy Neanderthal teen can throw a spear, so the college student can pick up a telephone and assert themselves with others.  Rather than use the "helicopter" metaphor perhaps we should try the term "nursemaid".

To be fair, it is not just parents who err in this way.  It is the rest of us older adults as well.  When any of us involved in higher education (or any of our society's institutions for that matter) fail to draw a line in behavior, and fail to apply the natural consequences we ourselves would face were we to behave in similar fashion, we engage in hurtful dodging.  We enable continued unethical conduct when we let the water pass downward to someone else, perhaps even some unfortunate soul in the distant future.  It takes courage for anyone, in any sector of our culture, to confront hazing, or alcohol abuse, or sexual assault, or tampering of elections, or hatred and bigotry.  There are always those who perpetuate these social ills, and they fight us.

But confront we must.  Some in higher education enable because they have difficulty watching a young person suffer in a mess of their own creation.  Sometimes this is done in the name of "student development".  This tendency is not only myopic but also dangerous, because by dodging in this way we ensure that someone, somewhere will pay, and often with a much less attractive outcome.  Students must directly learn from their own experiences, and sometimes this involves discomfort, pain and loss.  Let's not get in the way of this most precious form of learning.