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The College Crucible and Our Cultural Civil War

How helping our college students can help the larger culture

     There is a pervasive myth that college constitutes the best four years of one’s life and that entry into it, like owning a home, is the first major step towards the American Dream. College holds the best of times for many, but also the worst, and we need to do a better job illuminating this complicated reality. A series of existential crises (or opportunities, if you see the glass as half-full) compounded by a host of individual factors, such as first-generation, financial, or mental health status, college is as much a loss as it is a gain. For traditional college-aged students, it is the end of a childhood period of innocence. In a process of mourning as they attempt to negotiate how to learn from experience with hope and wisdom rather than cynicism and despair, many students do not realize that college begins the developmental period where choices become more fully one’s own, and that this freedom is also imbued with a sense of terror at the enormity of one’s existential responsibility.

     As a psychologist who has worked and trained at several college counseling centers, I am not reporting this to be alarmist. It is nothing new. College always was and still is a series of essential rites of passage to determine the most important aspects of life: what am I going to do to contribute to the culture through work? Who am I going to commit my life to in a romantic bond? Who are the people that I call my friends from whom with a little help, I’ll get by ? And what is the ultimate meaning of why I am here?

     What is new is the way that students, parents, and college administrators conceptualize these issues. It is easy for all to forget about the backdrop of existential issues in the midst of widespread reports of the increasing severity and prevalence of problems facing college students today. Students come to counseling at alarmingly higher rates than in years past, attending sessions at nearly five times the rate of enrollment (CCMH, 2016). While partly impacted by the higher number of students able to attend college due to various supports, financial, emotional or otherwise, and the increasing openness to counseling, it is the greater complexity of issues occurring in this existential backdrop truly wagging the dog.

     Amplifying this, we are at a point in American history rife with polarization and uncertainty, a transitional period governed by the dual growing pains of a post-global world and multiculturalism and its discontents. Just look at the divisiveness at Evergreen State, Middlebury College, or UC Berkley. Without a clear and coherent vision of how to reconcile the best and worst of this collective existential moment and with few role models to lead the way, students are finding that like mercury, meaning, belonging, and stability, are increasingly difficult to grasp. Moreover, as the central battlefield of this cultural civil war, college campuses are plagued by protests and violence on both sides of the political aisle, making thoughtful and reflective discourse extraordinarily difficult in the classroom and cafeteria. Both the personal and collective existential crises are conspiring to create a harrowing crucible for today’s students. So what can we do about it?

     Put simply, we need to get back to basics, helping students to learn the process of exploring the perennial universal questions that bind humanity. They need to do this in the process of counseling, in their classes, and in their writing. Just as the political is personal, the converse is also true, and more students need support in developing the tools to translate their personal reactions into meaningful and constructive dialogue. Similarly, students require guidance in developing a more profound empathy for the complexities and contradictions of themselves and others, particularly around those with whom they disagree and the parts of themselves self from which they are alienated.

    Psychologist and trauma specialist Phillip Bromberg (2006) notes the universal presence of multiple self-states and the need to ‘stand in the spaces’ amongst these subpersonalities in order to achieve psychological health and maturity. We need to cultivate this kind of reflective flexibility in the education of our students for it will foster the development of a much broader appreciation for the range and diversity of themselves and those around them. This would go a long way towards expanding the intellectual, emotional, and political dialogue that is occurring on college campuses today and make strides towards healing the great divides endemic to the current state of our union.

    Walt Whitman, writing in the lead-up to the Civil War, recognized the profound truth that the song of myself is also the song of others, and in the process of documenting the multitudes, he embodied the best of American democracy. We need to heed his words now, before the time is too late, and then, just maybe, our campuses can be the place where a model for unity will emerge again.       

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