The Best Years

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire uses on the sit-com “Modern Family” to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of almost continuous partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, unadulterated pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my day, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. I don’t think I ever heard them talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist. They might change slightly, but they will be created in order to lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

In addition to being a place to make new friends and have fun, the young need college to be what it is supposed to be. But it won’t happen as long as the myths prevail and the colleges keep lowering their expectations, giving the young what they have come to expect from a culture that is focused on “wants” rather than “needs.”