Thursday, May 13, 2010

Viewing The New (and Broken) World of Student Life

I've watched the events surrounding the death of UVa student Yeardley Love with real sadness.  I still remember the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, where our son was a sophomore at the time.  I suspect that there is a deep-seated terror in the pit of every parent's stomach when these stories flash into our world.  "What can I do to make this world a little safer for the children I love?"  I had trouble sleeping after the VaTech shootings with this playing over and over again in mind.

While I have no stones to throw in these situations, I must admit that I watch them through different eyes now because of two books I have recently read.  These books are each insightful, but certainly not in comforting ways.  They make one statement from their different perspectives that has kept me awake several nights once again: The world in which our high school and college-aged students are living is dramatically different than the one in which I grew up.  So different, that I dare not use my own experience as a resource for understanding theirs.  If I do, I will miss their need every time.
The first book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers, by Chap Clark, was recommended to me by Cliff Wright, Area Director of Young Life in Fredericksburg, VA.  "It changed the way Young Life does ministry with high school students across the entire US," he told me one day over lunch.  Now that I've read the book, I'm not surprised.  I was never able to read more than two chapters in a day.  Clark has spent a life-time working with students, studying students and training people to work with students.  For the book, he spent the better part of a year on the campus of a California high school trying to enter the world of teens as best an adult can.  Technically, it is a study in ethnography, a form of participant-observer social science.  His findings are well grounded and his reflections are important.

He concludes that today's students have created a hidden, defensive world of their own - "the world beneath" he calls it (pp. 57-70) - that is rarely even perceived by adults.  They have done this because abandonment - abandonment by the adults and institutions that in previous eras were committed to the nurturing and care of children - has become the defining issue for contemporary adolescents.  He plays this theme out across eight different aspects of student life including sex, drugs, family and more.

It's a hard read, but it is insightful.  So insightful that it is important.  I recommend it for every parent with a child in high school or college.  Then call me and let's talk.  I needed someone to talk me through the shock.  Clark has some very clear directives for those who are willing to enter the fray and reach out to these abandoned students in their strange new world.  I'm wondering how to let go of my own past experiences and deal with "the new normal" for the sake of the students and families that I know. 

The other book is Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both by Laura Session Stepp, a Washington Post journalist.  She interviews and follows over time the lives of several young women at a variety of colleges and high schools, both public and private.  The result is a close-up look at the "hookup culture" that so pervades the lives of the same age group that Chap Clark studies.  Think of it as a book length expansion of Clark's chapter on sex.

Like him, Stepp speaks of a "large cultural shift" (p.5) with regards to attitudes, behaviors and expectations for relationships and sex.  Sex without commitment.  It really is an entirely different - and for me unsettling - world than I have known.  And I played rock-n-roll for five years in the post-Woodstock '70's.

She documents this world well, letting these women tell their own story over time.  While Stepp is an adult, a mother and a feminist, in this book she is first a journalist.  She seems to have befriended these women, and so retells their stories without judgment and on their own terms.  One can sense her own concerns, even self-reflection, but this only helped me feel closer to these women and their world.  I have been left to pray and ponder my own considerations and response, but I do that in a healthier way because this book has helped me draw close to see and hear what life inside this culture is like from the inside.  I suspect I couldn't have gotten there myself.

I don't think this book can be ignored, even as unsettling as it was for me.  That's because:

Seventy-five percent of both sexes have had sex before their nineteenth birthdays.  Only one-third of young women said they truly wanted to have sex the first time they did.  .  .  . while two out of three young men said it was better to get married than go through life single, fewer than half of the young women felt that way."  Statistics do not talk, however; they only point us to the people to whom we need to talk.  (p. 9)
Her last chapter - A Letter To Mothers and Daughters - is profound, but will only have full impact if you have listened to and pondered the stories of the women that fill the preceding pages.

Is a doctor who brings you the news of serious, potentially terminal cancer serving you well?  I think so, even when - especially when - the diagnosis is threatening.  That would make Chap Clark and Laura Stepp our friends in this setting as well.  Diagnosis though is just the beginning.  Now it is time to identify and pursue a regimen for "treatment."

That is something that is far larger and longer than a single blog post, but these two books have motivated and empowered me to begin looking for the grace, people, responses and programs that can begin to stand in the tide.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, thank you for these recommandations. As I read this article I feel so unprepared for the days ahead when my girls reach "that" age. I've read one book about Fathers and Daughters. I don't recall the author at the moment..was a doctor of Psychitry who has worked with troubled teens of many years..basically throughout the book it emphasized the need to stay engaged with your daughter activities, hobbies, everything..and gave a lot of good insight on the thoughts of teenage girls..The more I prepare the better..I hope and pray..



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