When Adolescent Culture Goes to College

Jonathan Imber

This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus

College students have been protesting lately in many different settings, from Qccupy Wall Street to classroom walkouts, to the riots at Penn State.  Each incident recommends its own separate analysis and explanation, but it is important to recognize what they share in common as well.  Philip C. Altbach and Patti Peterson  reminded us that student protest is as old as the Republic, though it received national attention and serious analysis only in the 1960s: "In 1823, half the Harvard senior class was expelled shortly before graduation for participating in disruptive activity, and students were involved in anti-conscription campaigns during the Civil War. Student activism before 1960, however, had no major impact on national policy, and prior to 1900, no organized student activist groups emerged. Yet there is a tradition of student involvement in politics in the United States, and many of the concerns of the activists of the sixties are reflected in the past.” (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1971.)

Since the 1960s, the forms of protest have not changed all that much. Writing about secondary education in 1959 in the Harvard Education Review (and soon afterwards in 1961 in his major study, The Adolescent Society)the sociologist James S. Coleman observed:  “We are beset by a peculiar paradox: in our complex industrial society there is increasingly more to learn, and formal education is ever more important in shaping one’s life chances; at the same time, there is coming to be more and more an independent ‘society of adolescents,’ an adolescent culture which shows little interest in education and focuses the attention of teenagers on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to school” (“Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition”).  In one respect, Coleman was already laying the grounds for how “an adolescent culture,” first among the privileged, would trickle down  to those who could least afford a lack of interest in education, as Myron Magnet and Charles Murray made clear a quarter century later.

What Coleman did not anticipate is that the real locus of adolescent culture would move from secondary education to university education during the last quarter of the twentieth century, when, especially among the upper-middle class, the “structure of competition” made “getting into college,” and in particular, into elite colleges, a crucial matter of how students performed in high school.  At the same moment affirmative action came to higher education, so, too, did meritocracy, sometimes with a vengeance.  The result has been an unprecedented competitive spirit unleashed for entrance into roughly the same number of spots in elite institutions that existed fifty years ago.  But this is only a story about a miniscule fraction of the number of young people who matriculate.  When U.S. News and World Report ranks the top ten schools, the actual number of students attending those schools could not fill the demand for well-paid jobs even in a recession.  It is probably the case, however, that among the students at those top-ten schools, adolescence is subordinated much more to ambition than at larger, lesser ranked schools, such as Penn State.

Consider a comparison between the recent Harvard protest involving students walking out of N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics course and students rioting on the Penn State main campus upon learning of the firing of football coach Joe Paterno. At Harvard, the protest was the epitome of aristocratic politeness, a walkout by five to ten percent of the class to make the point that Mankiw is guilty of too much influence: “the point of the walkout [its organizers argued] was not to silence conservative viewpoints, but rather to protest Professor Mankiw’s monopoly over the presentation of economics to over 700 students with little experience in the field every year.”  This adolescent condescension is indicative of adult expectations about civil discourse already in place.  Walking out of a class drew attention not only to Mankiw but to a polite style of protest whose ante could have been (but was not) upped by the tactic of the sit-in.  Students who joined the walk-out actually succeeded in bringing attention to Professor Mankiw’s thoughts on the importance of engaging perspectives as diverse as those of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, both of whom he mentioned when he was interviewed on National Public Radio.  Harvard students have come a long way since their adolescent tantrums against Edward Banfield.

Penn State is another matter entirely.  Unlike the young arguing fervently with their adult counterparts, there was instead at Penn State a systemic failure on the part of adults to protect the young.  The next months and years will be spent trying to account for how so obvious a failure in judgment by such accomplished people could ever have happened.  Already the explanations and rationalizations are emerging, including the sacred nature of major college football, the invulnerability of those running the football program, and the poor quality of on-campus oversight of sexual assault adjudication.  If there is any ideal of fiduciary responsibility in higher education, it stems not from academic freedom but from the relationship any public or private institution has to the laws that apply to all citizens regardless of their position.  The Penn State Board of Trustees acted with its own dispatch in dispatching in particular a figure so revered that even the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to acknowledge his extraordinary contributions over six decades in the wake of his precipitous demise.  Mr. Paterno’s association with child rape, however attenuated it may eventually turn out to be, was clearly sufficient to end his career, thus raising the interesting question about what is really meant by fiduciary responsibility.  The Trustees acted not on the basis of immediate legal concern, but rather on a concept of responsibility that has been called the non-contractual aspects of contract.  Sins of omission are as consequential as those of commission. Paterno is truly a hero to Penn State, and his fall from grace speaks to the observation that America is a land with very few heroes anymore.

But it is not the absence of heroes as much as heroism that is really at stake in such an observation.  In this respect, the “hero” Paterno could have acted heroically by insisting that his legion of student supporters behave themselves.  He could have acted courageously in front of the media insisting that such behavior was tantamount to tearing him down as much as the reputation of the institution to which he is now so fatefully connected.  Instead student protest at State College turned irrational and violent, vindicating all the critics of football über alles.  Football is after all the preeminent expression of American adolescent culture, praised more for the outstanding programs than criticized for the many, many other less than outstanding ones. Perhaps the pace of events was simply too much for an 84-year-old man to assess responsibly and effectively, but unlike a ten-year-old child alone in a shower with an adult unrelated to him, that multitude in the streets should have been capable of defending themselves against their violent passions incited by the indifference and aggressions of their elders.  Their rage it has been said had nothing to do with what Paterno has been accused of, in effect, ignoring. Yet the incoherence of the mob is least of all about simple explanations.  What was unleashed at Penn State was an extraordinary passion against injustice, clearly against a board of trustee decision, but not unrelated to the injustice done by those who could have certainly done more about the actions of an alleged child predator.

The firing of the president of Penn State is an afterthought in the present calculus of injustice and the passions it has aroused.   It has been said that Graham Spanier was not beloved by students, whatever that means.  Instead, he was swept out on the same crest of the wave that washed over an organization in the throes of a meltdown.  The office of the president always stands above any person occupying it at any given moment in time. Mr. Paterno defied a basic rule of institutional survival.  It is not that he stayed on too long or that he did not contribute immensely to Penn State’s reputation over more than a half century.  He created a fictitious office from which he could not be seen apart and which built on the passions of adolescence.  Football may be a metaphor for the game of life, but except for the audience it cultivates and the revenue that audience provides, it has very little to do with life.  Pious educators hate that metaphor because so many players in so many sports are shortchanged rather than improved by their participation in such games. Now public health nannies are landing in fields all over the country to determine how the butting of heads may make learning difficult for some who are silently injured.  The survival of Penn State, in the end, has to be about its educational mission, not its football program, and this realization will undoubtedly be experienced as one of the great adolescent disappointments of the first part of the twenty-first century.

Adolescent protest is perennial.  Adult response to it is another matter.  At Harvard, injustice will always be a problem that for some turns the virtue of patience into a cop-out.  Over the same days that Professor Mankiw’s economics course brought National Public Radio into its orbit, Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard drop-out and creator of Facebook, was encouraging Harvard students to stay in school.  What is one really to say of the impatience of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates?  Their choice was never an adolescent protest against injustice in the world, whether conceived nationally (as at Harvard) or locally (as at Penn State).  Instead, drop-outs are a wholly different species than walk-outs.  The latter risk much less and do much less but presumably enough to be called above average.  At Penn State, a different reckoning proceeds apace.  Above all, something akin to mortification is bound to take its toll until a rededication to its real mission puts the chants of “JoePA” (perhaps “paterNO”) in a clearer perspective than anyone can perceive now.

This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus.


Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and a long-time NAS member.  His late father, Herman David Imber graduated from Penn State in 1939 and Harvard Business School in 1941.

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