Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Extending childhood via student loans

The world has changed drastically in the last two thousand years, in the last thousand years, indeed in the last one hundred years. And yes, much of this change is technological in nature. But much of it is also social in nature (party due to changing technology, it is true). Daily life, the way we understand it, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is very, very different than it was in even the immediate past.

In particular, distinct life-stages have become social institutions, each with specific characteristics and expectations. Babies, toddlers, children, teen-agers, young adults, adults, middle-aged adults, retirees (old people); we all begin as the first and "graduate" into each new stage. And within each stage, behavior is generalized and idealized. The first four, however, can collectively be called "childhood," notwithstanding the claims of erstwhile teenagers to the contrary.

In 1962, a controversial book by Philippe Ariès--Centuries of Childhood--was published. One of Ariès' claims is that in the Medieval world, the concept of childhood did not exist. He argued that children were treated as "mini" adults And this claim has been roundly criticized and, I think, substantially disproven. There has always been such a concept in society, throughout all of human history. The issue is, when does it end? When does someone cease to be considered a child and how is this change accounted for within society?

I would argue that this moment is--ultimately--based on a simple standard: the availability of leisure time. The more leisure time a society in general and a family in particular has, the longer childhood lasts (or can last). And in this regard, the modern world has set new standards with more leisure time for more and more of the population than ever before. The U.S. and Europe in particular enjoy an abundance of leisure time. And we are loathe to give it up.

In crises of the recent past--like during the Great Depression--children did indeed lose some of their childhood, but within the current downturn, there has been no such loss to any significant extent. And that is due--in a large part--to safety nets and entitlement programs. One could actually argue that a principal consequence of the modern welfare state is the institutionalization of childhood as a period of development.

And generally speaking, childhood in the modern world comes to end at the age of adulthood, usually eighteen, the age when one completed public schooling and could literally die in service to the country. The expectation was that at such a point, a person would become an individual agent in society at large, start earning a living, go out into the world and find their way. Ideally, part of their childhood had been about prepping them for this change.

But let's be honest: in the recent past, for people of an upper-middle class to upper class background, childhood could--and did--last much longer. College, while supposedly about life-training, provided another four years of dependent, largely carefree life. This is even codified in tax laws, where a child in college can still be claimed as a dependent.

Today, I would argue that the growth of college attendance--due to the government-sponsored narrative of the vital importance of a higher education--has expanded the possibility of longer childhoods for even more people, those from lesser means included. Government scholarships and loan programs--which have driven up the cost of tuition for all (damn those unintended consequences!)--have aided and abetted this process.

How many times have you heard someone say "enjoy your college years, have fun!" or the like? Once upon a time, the fun times ended at nine or ten for the great majority, then thirteen or fourteen, and finally seventeen, the end of high school. Now? Twenty-one? Twenty-two? Twenty-six? And then reality crashes down, as new crops of college graduates realize they have mountains of debt, which they accumulated because they could, because they were told that they should. By who? The same people telling them to go to college and enjoy themselves. Worse still, what are people really getting for their money? As Robert Samuelson notes:
In a recent book, "Academically Adrift," sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that 45 percent of college students hadn't significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent. Their study was based on a test taken by 2,400 students at 24 schools requiring them to synthesize and evaluate a block of facts. The authors blame the poor results on lax academic standards. Surveyed, one-third of the same students said that they studied alone five or fewer hours a week; half said they had no course the prior semester requiring 20 pages of writing.
A nation of children we are becoming...

Cheers, all.


  1. ...and children are known for their propensity to throw temper tantrums when their lollipops are taken away.

  2. data: the actual value of an education varies greatly from institution to institution. and in what I would think to be most cases, within any given institution. but the price within one institution, to my experience, varies little. so although I agree with your conclusions, better data is desired.

    there are many people within the public education institutions, and private too for that matter, whose primary concern is actual education. they, however, are not driving the system, or it would not be going where it is headed.

    cheers back at you.