I don't want to meet the parents

July 29, 2005

The growing infantilisation of campus life is not doing students or lecturers any favours, says Frank Furedi

In 1997, I completed my book The Culture of Fear . Most of the comments my copy editor made about the manuscript were routine questions about grammar, incoherent formulations and inconsistencies. But one of the comments stood out as an explicit challenge to the authenticity of the text. The contentious passage informed the reader of a relatively new development - the arrival of parents on campus. To illustrate the changing character of university life, I pointed to what was then a relatively novel phenomenon: students arriving on campus for their interviews, accompanied by their parents. "This cannot be true," exclaimed my editor.

At first, I was taken aback by her implicit challenge to my integrity. But after we had discussed this issue, I was able to understand where she was coming from. As someone who was an undergraduate in the 1970s, she could not reconcile her experience of a parent-free university with the subsequent changes. Although her accusation was, strictly speaking, wrong, what it indicated was great sensitivity to the process of change.

A number of colleagues agreed with the facts as I presented them but claimed that I was in danger of exaggerating the trend. They said it was unlikely that the presence of parents on campus could expand and that there would probably be a backlash from students, who would soon be fed up with this encroachment on their independence from busybody adults.

That was eight years ago. Since then, parental intervention in higher education has grown, and no one would now argue that it represents a marginal or transitional phenomenon. On the contrary, anyone who raises concerns about this infantilisation of campus life is likely to be accused of insensitivity towards the "conscientious parent".

In practice, many educators now regard undergraduates as biologically mature schoolchildren and welcome the positive support that parents can provide to university students.

Academics, like other normal human beings, sometimes suffer from social amnesia. Sometimes it is difficult to recall that the way things are today is not necessarily the best way of organising the world.

Unfortunately, those who suffer from social amnesia are also afflicted by a powerful commitment to the present. Presentism in higher education means that anything to do with the experience of the past is represented as an inferior version of the status quo. And the slightest hint that some aspects of university life were superior to those of today is dismissed as nostalgia for a mythical golden age. This Panglossian perspective cannot accommodate a world in which students take themselves so seriously that they believe they should be treated like adults.

Yet it is worth recalling that the protests of the 1960s led to the formulation of a new attitude towards the status of university students.

These students were regarded as adult participants in an academic community who were capable of making choices about their lives and of being held responsible for the consequences. This expression of an aspiration to take control of life represented a positive development.

Sadly, our conformist campus culture has become inhospitable to this sentiment. We can pretend that this is not a big deal, accept a new role as schoolteachers with PhDs and look forward to the first university parent-teacher association. I would rather we gently explain to parents that they do their offspring no favours by intervening in their university education.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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