They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity; in the case of the contemporary academy, they couldn’t be more wrong. In any given week national newspapers publish dire editorials about universities in the United States. Tuition costs are through the roof, and the liberal arts offer a particularly negative return on investment. The professoriate is out of touch with current economic pressures. Academic freedom is under threat, especially for conservative voices on campus. Student protests lead to revoking guest speaker invitations, staff firings, and even faculty dismissals. Wokeness on college campuses around the country is wreaking havoc on dormitory and classroom life. And the news about the students who attend these colleges is no more encouraging. The lives of college students are often fraught with frantic busyness and loneliness. Studies show that over 35 percent of college students suffer from anxiety and depression, a rate significantly higher than in the general population. Over the past twenty years, college students have also reported increased illegal and prescription drug use and alarming self-harming tendencies.
Data show that things won’t improve when they move out into the real world. In an age of “liquid modernity,” a young person’s twenties are full of upheavals, dislocations, and temporary jobs, all of which bring risks of aimlessness and alienation. Twenty-somethings often find themselves drifting anxiously through a “lost decade.” Ironically, the twenties are the critical period for adult development. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay reminds us that twenty-somethings’ brains undergo a growth spurt as they rewire themselves for adulthood, female fertility peaks at age twenty-eight, and the first ten years of one’s working life have an enormous impact on one’s professional development.
These media stories and sociological data point to real fissures in the contemporary university. But they sound the alarm bell without either getting at the root of the problems or offering hopeful, realistic alternatives. There are, however, several initiatives in and around college campuses throughout the country that paint a compelling picture about what the goals of college should be, and that prepare young people for an adult life in that new frame. In Villanova University’s Honors Program, our students are benefiting from a new sequence of courses that give voice to the often-toxic culture they face and challenge them to think differently about love, friendship, work, and leisure.
Part of the problem is that the skills that young people honed in high school to get into college aren’t easily adapted to the college environment. In order to be admitted into the college of their choice, they’ve pretended to make lifelong decisions about work that have led them to apply to a particular school or program. They’ve developed a script about why they want to go to college “x” so that the college will choose them for their maturity and preparedness. As they move toward college graduation, this same script develops. They need to convince future employers or graduate schools that they have been working doggedly to prepare themselves for a particular discipline or industry. So they run through college like the marathon that was high school, imposing a clear finish line and bright guiding markers.
But college is not a marathon, and the finish line is not clear. Rather, it is a big, confusing supermarket. In Supermarket U., college students encounter thousands of bewildering options: majors, minors, credentials, study abroad programs, new choices about dating and alcohol and friends. Since students have not yet decided what kind of life they want to live, and since professors offer few proposals of what a good life looks like, they don’t know what ingredients to put in their carts. To make matters worse, student debt constrains their choices. Young people often don’t know what they’re hungry for, what good food tastes like, and how much their manic, four-year shopping spree will cost them in well-being.
Students need to meet adults who illuminate their fractured experiences and invite them to seek different kinds of aptitudes, more holistic skills, and wider horizons of meaning. They need a wider vision of what a full life looks like, and the courage to walk a new path to healthy success. They need to reconsider some of their most important relationships—to their work, to their friends and romantic partners, and to their free time.
There are almost as many books written for young people as there are majors, minors, and concentrations on college campuses. But they’re all process-driven. They assume that young people have already made decisions about the life that they want to lead, and they offer tools to help them get there, whatever the “there” is. They shy away from substantive claims about what makes an adult life worth living.
In the Villanova Honors Program, we have built a curriculum that helps students walk through their college experience in an intentional and unique way. The initiative revolves around a one-credit course for freshman on transitioning to college; a one-credit course for sophomores that helps with the “backpack to briefcase” process, but in a way that reorients their language around work; and a three-credit course, open to juniors and seniors, that helps them transition into life after college in the three areas that make for a fully flourishing adult life: relationships, work, and leisure.
Through the stories we tell, and the wisdom of the traditions we know, we invite students to rethink their lives as a creative call to move outside themselves, into relationships with goods, work, and people that are fulfilling and fruitful. We offer several courses that prepare students for life’s successes. We arm students with new vocabulary, and we help them develop the habits and skills necessary to choose wisely among various courses, rather than jump into one race as quickly as possible to avoid the anxiety of an overwhelming choice.
Here are some of the ways in which we help students build a new vocabulary and skills for work, leisure, and relationships.
The capstone course that is open to juniors and seniors, called Shaping an Adult Life, encourages students to develop an awareness of the quality of their friendships and relationships, their assumptions about work life, and their approaches to leisure time. Nothing matters to young people more than finding and maintaining real friendships. When given the opportunity to examine their friendships, many students are open about the deleterious effects of social media and the toxicity of the hookup culture on college campuses. Both of these factors lead to widespread loneliness. We talk openly with them about the courage and vulnerability needed to find and build virtuous friendships. We read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas on charity as friendship with God, and Saint John Paul II’s The Jeweler’s Shop in order to help students build a new vocabulary around these issues. We then offer concrete strategies around dating that help students develop a social script that has been practically erased from college campuses. We talk about the philosophical and theological foundations of friendship.
Desiring friends is built into the fabric of human nature; but how do we distinguish good friends from fake ones? A good friend is one who desires the good of her friend consistently and firmly, and who works to make that good a reality. In the end, a good friend makes you a better person. These philosophical insights are deepened by the theological reality that friendship is a gift offered to us by God. This increases the demands placed upon us, as we are called to love others as they relate to God, even those who hurt us. Students learn that vulnerability and suffering are integral to Christian friendship, and this gives them a clarifying lens through which to look at their own relationships.
With respect to work, we find that adults often pressure young people to find a job without offering accompanying advice about how to seek meaningful work. Students arrive at college shaped by an educational system that has trained them to work doggedly on their schoolwork in the midst of their overscheduled lives. One student writes:
Freshman year I thought the coolest thing was to get four hours of sleep. It showed that you were so busy all day, working, hanging out with friends, doing clubs. Sophomore year, there was a shift. I fell seriously ill in the fall, having to take time off and drop classes. I realized that this crazy lifestyle of mine wasn’t working, or worth it.
Students are asked to make choices about jobs that they are ill-equipped to make, but they do have aspirations for meaningful work. They find it difficult to connect the dots between jobs that help battle climate change, or global poverty, and their collegiate classes. We help students expand their imaginations about meaningful work by drawing on people like Dorothy Sayers, who insists that work should be undertaken, “not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of [the human person] should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God.” Sayers insists that work should be understood “as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that [the human person], made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.” We encourage students to examine what motivates them, to think about not what they’re already good at, but what they’d like to become good at. And we help them take concrete steps to move in the direction of their dreams and aspirations.
When talking to students about leisure, it becomes quickly apparent that the activities that many of them developed as children have fallen by the wayside in college. Many used to write songs or poetry, to knit and paint, to bake and cook; but college has reduced leisure time to binge-watching Netflix. Once students attend to the way that they are spending their free time, and remember how things used to be different, they begin to make small changes in their daily patterns. We encourage these practices by recalling Jewish thinker Abraham Heschel’s wise words: “There is a realm in time where the goal is not to have, but to be, not to own, but to give, not to control, but to share, not to subdue, but to be in accord.” Changes in leisure practices have the most immediate and marked effect on their college experience.
At the root of our initiatives with students is a deep Christian humanism that recognizes that salvation begins here and now. We can be healed from the damage of our harmful tendencies and in their place learn to develop virtuous habits. The cementing of these habits makes for a flourishing human life. We don’t offer a linear, ten-point plan for success. But we do encourage our students to learn to pay attention to the patterns of their daily lives, and to shift attention away from the noise around them and toward their inward longings. We tell them that there are two markers of adulthood: first, when you realize that life is not about you, that your talents gifts and abilities are emptied out into other people; second, when you stop living in preparation for the next thing, and instead live life gratefully in the present moment, recognizing the gift that is time.