Calling Mary Poppins: Should Colleges Teach When Parents Don’t?

October 17, 2012, 2:32 pm

Should these books be on every dean’s shelf? Photo credit.

Now that I no longer teach at a residential campus, I rarely think about what used to be called in loco parentis, otherwise known as “parietals” or “colleges acting like parents.”

Mary Poppins was the original in loco parentis, but her university life descendants had titles like Dean of Women and Dorm Housemother.  You have to be sixty or older to remember what these remnants of Victorian England were like: they enforced a set of rules, the most odious of which purported to control campus sexuality by controlling women in particular. Women signed in and out of dorms, and had to be in at a certain hour. Men were allowed in the women’s dorms in the evening, but only in parlors. Any man visiting a woman’s room required an open door so that patrolling housemothers could make sure that, as Dear Abby used to say, there was “Four on the floor and all hands on deck!”

The student life philosophy of in loco parentis also meant that grades were sent home to parents, and if your roommate seemed to be suffering from a physical or mental illness (like homosexuality) you could tell the dean of students, the dean told the parents, and poof! your roommate was whisked away to a mental institution and given electroshock. (Mary Poppins probably would have gone with a few good strokes of a chimney brush.)

Oh, the good old days. Two different articles in last Sunday’s New York Times (October 14 2012) got me thinking about in loco parentis again.These practices eventually became impractical: during the sexual revolution of the 1960s students successfully overturned these and other rules for which they had contempt. Official restrictions on student autonomy were dealt a death blow in 1974 after passage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, otherwise known as FERPA or the Buckley Amendment. Since then, while colleges and universities have all kinds of rules that pertain to following the law and the fire codes, they have mostly refrained from telling students how to live.

The demise of in loco parentis was a good thing, in that it recognized a set of rights that a young adult should not have to give up by becoming a member of a college community: privacy is perhaps the most important one. But one of the things that colleges may have missed back in the 1970s was replacing in loco parentis with structures that eased residential college students from partial adulthood to full adulthood.

Take voting, for example. Four years prior to the Buckley Amendment, Richard M. Nixon signed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age to eighteen. Hence, many young people reach voting age and find it difficult to determine where, and how, they are entitled to cast a ballot. This article, by Steven Yaccino, points out that some colleges have now mobilized to bring students into political adulthood. “Dozens of colleges have begun their own voting registration drives in orientation programs, class registration, intranet Web sites and other interactions crucial to campus life, institutionalizing services that had often been left to outside efforts,” Yaccino writes.

At some schools, this effort is part of a commitment to civic engagement, but it is also an acknowledgment that voter registration, as well as the process of casting a vote that will be counted, is complex enough that students can’t, or won’t, do it on their own. It also addresses voter suppression efforts that have changed the political landscape and do not only affect the working poor and communities of color.  Communities that have colleges in them sometimes deliberately put barriers in the way of students who want to vote, while the communities where students live do little to help them learn to cast an absentee ballot.

Another, seemingly unrelated, article by Bruce Feiler addresses questions of comportment, good manners and presentation that also fell by the wayside as colleges dropped dress codes and increasingly allowed students to function with autonomy in dorms and college-owned housing. In response to parents not teaching their children self-discipline and good manners, Feiler writes, synagogues have stepped in to teach etiquette classes. Prior to this intervention, children, dropped off for religious instruction as though it were free daycare, disrupted services and treated the premises “like the mall,” he reports. “Girls were hanging out in the bathroom, sitting on the countertops and texting their friends, while boys were playing tag football in the social hall and sneaking brownies from under the plastic wrap.” Classes also include not draping your trou halfway down your a$$ and covering enough skin so that G-d knows that She hasn’t gone to the mall by mistake that Saturday.

Rabbi, I feel your pain. Who among us thought, twenty years ago, that students would come to class in pajamas?

Why many parents are not teaching these things is not something I want to get into: if the New York Times says parents are too stressed, then it must be so.

My question is: does higher ed need to reconsider a modern form of in loco parentis that responds to modern campus problems?  In other words, if Mary Poppins dropped into your campus dean’s office, what programs might she recommend?

  • Teaching students not to steal everything that isn’t nailed down. A few years back, Zenith built a new student center and as part of this effort the college bought some attractive outdoor furniture so that students and faculty could congregate outside over lunch and coffee. Then workers nailed it down, making each conversation group of tables and chairs oh-so-much more difficult to use. I’m not kidding. When I asked why, the maintenance guys explained that students would use these items to furnish their rooms if they were not secured. Once I even caught students walking out the back door of our office building with empty water bottles from our dispenser (which would have had to be paid for out of the department budget) because they wanted to make drums out of them.
  • Explaining to students what their education really costs and why, simultaneously sending the message that whatever you think you are being overcharged in tuition won’t be returned to you through the petty forms of theft described above.  Conservative activists have done widespread damage to the social order by reshaping every political question around the idea that taxes should be a fee for service proposition. Birth control, schools, abortion, public displays of religion and everything else that is part of the conservative mandate become has an “I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for……” proposition.  Worse are the school voucher systems which suggest that you can just move funds out of public education without damaging it. You don’t get to decide what constitutional rights your tax dollars pay for and neither do I! Similarly, once the tuition dollars leave the family bank account or the loan officer’s desk, they are paying for everything that goes into an education — and less! — since of course, tuition does not actually pay the cost of a year’s schooling  – particularlywhen you include repairs. Educating students to this might not just lower theft and destruction but create generations of students who aren’t deluded about what it costs to support good schools.
  • Helping students not do weird and destructive things to university property just because there is no adult around and, therefore, they can. Residential colleges and universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing things that students have not stolen but trashed. I was once in conversation with a dean who was in despair because the common rooms of a renovated dormitory had been reduced to a tattered and filthy state within a few weeks of the start of school. Spilled bong water, cigarette smells and burns, soda sprayed on the walls and furniture, hand and foot prints on the walls, graffiti — you name it, they had done it.
  • Helping students not do weird and destructive things to other people, or to themselves just because there is no adult around and therefore, they can. I know, I know. What parent would think to tell a child before leaving for college, “Do not put alcohol up your butt!!”  Or, “Don’t record your roomie having sex and broadcast it to your friends!” But the general principle is a sound one all the same. Not everything that is funny, gets you high, seemed hot when you watched it on the homemade porn website or that some other bonehead tells you to do as a newbie on the team or to a Greek pledge is something you should do. And if somebody suggests you should do something because it is hot, funny, cool or because everyone else is doing it and you are high at that moment do not even think of doing it.
  • Explaining that grooming and dress affect how people view you. Although many of my Zenith students were secretly appalled by their classmates’ appearance, there was a grunginess to many of my beloved former students that I don’t see among my new students. The difference, in my view? Work. Here are the things that my students at Downtown U. do because they are independent adults age 18 and up who most frequently come to class from a job: wash their bodies and clothes regularly; dress neatly, leaving nightwear at home; shave or keep facial hair neatly trimmed; keep their clothes over their underwear; and make sure that gonads of various kinds are not in danger from wardrobe failure.
  • Teaching students how to drink sensibly. Parents are dropping the ball here on something they could actually do in the privacy of their own homes.  However, if colleges were willing to take this on, rather than banning booze entirely and expecting that would (someday) have an effect, fewer students would learn about the perils of extreme intoxication on their own. In fact, I think colleges and universities could be persuasive that it is a safety issue to lower the drinking age so that they could take on this mission without breaking the law themselves.  Instead, universities are left with far more expensive and ineffective tasks of cleaning up after the damage has been done and enhancing campus policing.

Readers, what would Mary Poppins do for your campuses?

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