Alan Ryan

April 16, 2004

Why are so many students anxious? Perhaps they have yet to learn that failures are a part of life and can be overcome

When the American colonists declared themselves independent of their neglectful mother country, they did it - they said - to protect their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Ever since, there have been a lot of questions asked about the last of this famous trio: if we pursue happiness, will we ever catch up with it, or will it always be one step ahead of us? If we never catch it, will we feel worse than if we had never pursued it in the first place? Is happiness something you can pursue, anyway? And so endlessly on.

These old questions have been given new life in a drily funny essay by Sara Rimer, one of The New York Times' education editors. She reports the efforts of Bowdoin College - a small, expensive and very high-grade liberal arts college in Maine - to get its students to lighten up, ease off, relax and stop persecuting themselves. The college insisted that it didn't mean that students could coast to high grades and sleepwalk to the sort of degree that would get them into the top law schools; but, yes, it did mean that the students were needlessly stressed out.

Students shouldn't boast about how little sleep they could survive on, but should get a proper eight hours; and when the first spring sunshine appears, they should get out and enjoy it without guilt. The faculty expressed some doubt about whether it would do much good to cancel classes for the purpose of allowing their students to get some fresh air, however - they feared that they would just head for the library to catch up on their work. There probably needed to be some preparatory discussion so students would see the point of the cancellation. The pursuit of perfection was getting in the way of the pursuit of happiness.

On the face of it, there is something odd about the way that students from prosperous, secure and highly educated backgrounds make themselves so anxious. At the other end of the economic spectrum, there is plenty for students to feel anxious about - and much of it centres on money. Higher education does not come cheap. Although a state university's tuition fees for state residents (about $5,000 to $7,000 a year - roughly £2,700 to £3,800) are not much above the £3,000 a year students will be paying in the UK from 2006, living costs are about £6,000 a year, and US students get a lot less help from public funds than their peers in the UK. The two great differences are that almost none of the help is in the form of non-repayable grants - the so-called Pell Grants that have wholly failed to keep up with inflation - and that student loans carry commercial, though subsidised, rates of interest.

The day after Rimer's account of the anxieties of the well-off, two correspondents to The New York Times were quick to make just that point - the less well-off have plenty to feel objectively anxious about. Still, with that point duly acknowledged, there is still something worrying about the amount of unnecessary psychological distress that students seem to suffer - both in the US and in the UK. It can't really be accounted for by the cynical view that counselling services create their own clientele - not least because most counselling services are swamped with students needing help. And it really is help rather than therapy that students want; they are almost never mad, but they are very often anxious. The transition from late adolescence to adulthood is harder work than it ought to be.

But what do students need help with? So far as I can see, it is help with two different things: one is shedding the burden of unreasonable expectations, and the other is getting away from overprotective parents.

The two things are connected. The objective dangers to children have diminished dramatically, but that has made parental fear of the remaining dangers greater; but when parents look out for their children in ways that prevent them making their own mistakes and discovering that very few of them do much damage, they stop them learning the art of coping for themselves.

As a result, many young people find it hard to believe that they can cope rather easily with failures and setbacks, and they fail to see how far failures and setbacks are the common destiny of humanity. They believe, unreasonably, that life should go seamlessly well, and that something is amiss if it doesn't. They lack confidence in their own ability to make their lives go even moderately well, and so ordinary unhappiness comes to feel like failure. It's good to know that in Maine, at any rate, the counsellors are teaching the students that you can pursue happiness more effectively by sometimes taking it slowly.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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