The sexual revolution sold a false bill of goods, and young people today live in the midst of the revolution’s fallout: hookup culture, cheap sex, declining marriage rates, and a stagnating birthrate. As the locus of formation for millions of young Americans, colleges and universities are complicit in the cultural devaluation of marriage and family.
Universities tacitly discourage family formation, passing on to students the flawed philosophy that enabled the sexual revolution in the first place. This vision of the self, named “expressive individualism” by sociologist Robert Bellah, is that people are defined by their inner self, which they must express and make real to others. As historian Carl Trueman writes, “Anything that challenges [the inner self] is deemed oppressive.” Expressive individualism insists that reality be conformed to the individual will, and it leads students to think that they are fully autonomous and unbound by the so-called oppression of responsibilities, parental guidance, and social structures.
But a reorientation of the university around a substantive vision of education and the human person could change this narrative. It is possible to build a pro-marriage, pro-family culture on the college campus, but certain secular sacred cows must be abandoned—namely, expressive individualism and the sexual revolution. Young people are hungry for truth, and it’s high time our universities gave them some.
Expressive Individualism Run Amok
The majority of today’s colleges and universities implicitly operate according to expressive individualism: they suggest that one’s studies and subsequent career are primarily about following passions. While education should certainly nourish a student’s particular talents and passions, universities lack any coherent vision of what it means to be an educated person. Instead, they delegate educational choices to individual students and retain no power to judge those choices.
By positing college education as a project of self-determination, universities no longer have any grounds to embrace a normative vision of education. No relationships—whether familial, cultural, religious, or civic—can justifiably infringe on the atomized individual’s desired course of study. In higher education, as in business, the customer is always right.
This attitude that students know best has led to a tyranny of teenage desire on campuses. The webs of responsibility and duty to others that give orientation and purpose to life become alien to students who are taught nothing but self-determination for four years. They are more consumers in a marketplace than inheritors of a cultural tradition.
The anthropology of expressive individualism permeates the campus, both in and out of the classroom. A prime example is hookup culture, which affirms the pursuit of individual desire as good. The hookup mentality encourages instant sexual gratification and views people as means to an end. Just think of dating apps: men and women can scroll for hours, arranging hookups based solely on appearance and availability. It isn’t merely the high concentration of young people that leads to casual sex; denigrating human sexuality is the natural conclusion of expressive individualism.
As theologian Timothy P. O’Malley writes in his 2018 book, Off the Hook: God, Love, Dating, and Marriage in a Hookup World, “Hookup culture is closely linked to . . . an individualistic approach to love that makes commitment difficult.” O’Malley warns that the impact of this individualism and its litany of vices is “perhaps worst of all” for marriage. Not only does hookup culture create barriers to commitment, but it also individualizes sex: it pushes contraceptives and abortion as solutions to pregnancy, which it views as a burden to be avoided at all costs.
Any proposal to cultivate pro-marriage and pro-family campuses must be honest about the ways hookup culture has transformed college life. While marriage and family may not be top-of-mind for most young people, sex is. In order to promote the goods of marriage and family, the university must grapple with and address head-on the cultural narrative familiar to students.
Students as Future Spouses and Parents
Even though students may not always think of themselves as such, it is fully reasonable for universities to treat them as future spouses and parents. Indeed, it is odd that universities instill the knowledge and habits that empower a student to climb the corporate ladder after graduation but ignore the virtues proper to familial vocations.
Expressive individualism precludes attention to family life, but a different philosophy of education can give students a more holistic vision of human flourishing. The French priest and founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Bl. Basil Moreau, conceived of education as the “art of forming youth” in the life of virtue, so that they might fulfill their particular vocations. Moreau argued for viewing students as “the parents of the future and the parents of future generations.” He reminded educators that each student “carries within him or her a family.” Promoting marriage and the family is obviously quite counter to most campus cultures. But if education is to reflect a vision of the whole person, that is exactly what must be done.
It is all well and good to think about this on the level of abstraction, but what can be done on a practical level? There is an array of policies and programming that can both reinforce a positive vision of marriage and the family, and also guard against teenage folly.
Single-sex residence halls are a necessary start. And in single-sex dorms, parietals should be enforced to establish boundaries for visitors of the opposite sex. Some students will flout these rules, of course. But these policies would mean that a late-night rendezvous outside of visiting hours becomes an intentional violation of a well-known expectation, rather than an unofficial norm, as it is on many campuses today.
In addition to these boundaries, the university needs to explain why students aren’t free to do whatever they want. Even colleges that maintain single-sex dorms often fail to explain why such a rule is not merely an arbitrary holdover from the past. In a culture that seeks to erase distinctions between man and woman while universally promoting self-absorbed libertinism, the university needs to offer students a radical message of human dignity. Booklets, posters, and opt-in opportunities to learn about sexual ethics will not suffice. Students need to be told—they need to be educated.
O’Malley notes that universities and colleges are too often “primarily concerned with avoiding litigation by enforcing consent laws.” Addressing the particular situation of Catholic universities, he writes:
Student affairs professionals will address the legal requirements of sexual education. They’ll deal with the act of sexual consent, and they might even talk about what “good” consent would look like. But, at present, they’re not focusing on hookup culture as a cultural liturgy. And they’re not teaching a Catholic account of love and sexuality grounded in marriage and family life.
Instead of merely addressing the technicalities of consent, colleges (Catholic or not) should unabashedly remind students during flagship programming (such as freshman orientation) of the dignity they possess—a real dignity, not expressive individualism’s notion that conflates dignity with ego and unrestricted choice. Colleges must tell young women that they are worthy of far more than a young man’s “maybe”; that they deserve more than the uncertainties and instabilities of hookup culture; that they deserve an abiding love and respect that have nothing to do with one-night stands in college dorms. Likewise, no university should hesitate to tell young men that masculinity cannot be proven through sexual encounters; that they, too, deserve more than a hookup and the fleeting encounter that dating apps offer.
Even better, universities, especially religiously affiliated ones, should organize events with married alumni who can tell students how they have built a life together. Providing healthy models of relationships in day-to-day campus life would also be instructive. At the University of Notre Dame, of which I am a recent alumna, two dorms house married couples who live alongside the unmarried students and hall staff. These couples are faculty members; they share life with the other residents, host students for coffee in their apartment, offer guidance to those who seek it, and attest to the beauty of married life. Something similar could be adopted by other universities, giving students a live-in resource to help their own consideration of marriage and family life.
Organizations within the university can also encourage students to think about family formation. Campus ministries can provide a wealth of resources—from events themed around healthy relationships to mentorship for students preparing for marriage. They could also make marriage preparation classes available for free on campus for engaged couples, offer Natural Family Planning courses for newly married couples, and connect young parents with student-volunteer babysitters and opportunities for fellowship. Additionally, student clubs like Notre Dame’s Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP) or Right to Life clubs can also help build a pro-marriage and pro-family culture through their events and programming.
Even more appealing than lectures—which are often formative but attract a self-selecting crowd—are dances. Hosted by residence halls or student clubs, dances can present a low-pressure environment that can facilitate the beginning or deepening of relationships. Creating on-campus, community-based alternatives to nights spent at a bar can offer students an occasion for entering committed and respectful relationships.
Offering an Alternative to the “Girlboss” Narrative
Any attempt to encourage marriage and family life among students would be incomplete without acknowledging the unique burdens that young women face when weighing the goods of marriage and family in light of a career. Women have entered both higher education and the workforce in greater numbers, but both environments retain masculine norms that often fail to recognize the unique realities of femininity. Work is good, and it is a creative expression of human dignity. But careerism offers women the shallow archetype of the “girlboss” as the model of success, ignoring the reality that most women won’t “have it all.”
Young women seeking career counseling need to hear from mothers who no longer work, or who work part-time. Conversations about future careers need to take place in the context of a holistic assessment of life: if a student hopes to be a primary caregiver for a future family, perhaps he or she should consider choosing a career that offers flexibility with options for part-time work. Campus career centers should acknowledge that many students will probably not want full time, in-person jobs and should point them to careers that are conducive to flexible work, freelancing, or remote work—options that are more friendly to parents seeking to balance childcare and employment.
The difficulty of balancing the pursuit of a career and having a family is nothing new; it just isn’t talked about at universities. Starting the conversation would help the students who already know that they desire marriage and a family, and it would open a new horizon to those who haven’t considered these possibilities for their future.
Too many universities conform to expressive individualism, treating students as atomized wills and encouraging them to blindly follow their passions. Our colleges must recover their ability to teach students the realities and responsibilities of personal relationships. Those responsibilities can and should play a more decisive role in their lives than their careers do. Students are not merely individuals and future workers; they are people who will cultivate relationships throughout their lives, living as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.
It might be an uphill climb to counter the influence of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution on college campuses. But there’s reason to hope: young people desire the truth. They want to love and to be loved. Though they may not admit it, many students really do long for a different cultural narrative—one that responds to the true desires of their hearts instead of trampling over them.
Given the fragmentation and loneliness young people experience today as a result of the sexual revolution, there’s no better time for universities to adopt a pro-marriage, pro-family vision of education.