At NAS we often write about the curriculum, the administration, the faculty, and students in their role as students, but less frequently do we enter the dining halls, great lawns, and dorm rooms and see students as 18-22 year olds. Yet the minds that attend classes are embodied in young men and women, many of whom will one day be mothers and fathers.
Or perhaps not. In some circles the concepts of “mother” and “father” are in question. In Spain, birth certificates no longer have a line for the father’s and mother’s name. Instead they ask for the names of “Progenitor A” and “Progenitor B” –new accommodations for the changing strictures of the modern family. The same is true in Massachusetts, where Parent A and Parent B get together to make child C. A 2007 case in Pennsylvania ruled that a set of twins had 3 parents (introducing “progenitor C”) in a custody/support battle involving two lesbians and their male-friend-sperm-donor who was somewhat involved in the children’s lives.
We could brush aside these odd legalisms as not likely to bear on the lives of today’s college students. But higher education is implicated in these developments in several ways. It drives certain kinds of social change by legitimating new attitudes and fostering those attitudes through the curriculum. It presents its own social context in which students experiment with sexuality and develop what can become enduring patterns. And it becomes the setting where children who are the heirs of our experimentation with new norms of normlessness struggle with the resulting psychological issues.
This is not to say that higher education thinks of itself as anti-family. Colleges in the United States are, of course, profoundly attached to the institution of the family, which sends its children to college to complete their transition from teenagers to working adults.
Thus colleges typically pay some homage to the continuing importance of “the family.” It may be more than lip service, but not a great deal more. Federal law (FERPA) prohibits college and universities from sharing information about students, including their grades, with parents, unless the student signs a waiver. Most colleges and universities are content with this excuse to wall off students from their families. And as the NAS has been recently documenting in its How Many Delawares? series that many colleges and universities explicitly delegate to their offices of residence life or student affairs the task of breaking down students’ loyalty to their families’ supposedly retrograde values, which is depicted as an obstacle to developing new commitments to ideologies favored by the campus officials.
Traditional family structure may not come under open assault but contemporary higher education tends to relish its role in fostering the student’s distance from older norms. The family is not faring well against modernity, and the university has in many ways chosen sides—against fatherhood in particular. The ideal of a genderless free-for-all called parenthood can do only so much to deconstruct mothering, but fathering is another story.
College is full of clues that fathers are dispensable. One of the most popular books in freshman English is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a book of mothers and daughters and no fathers. Not far behind in popularity is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which includes “fathers,” all of whom, however, are rapists, or otherwise brutal and despicable. Over in the anthropology department, a student is likely to get a glib lesson in cultural relativity that introduces not only the idea that the traditional Western family is just one arbitrary arrangement among many, but savors accounts of matrifocal families with vaguely attached visiting husbands, and matrilineal societies in which men are (supposedly) peripheral to the family. A first brush with anthropology may also register the idea that polygamy is common and monogamy somewhat unnatural, and that “gender” itself is a product of mere custom. The student who gets caught in the undertow of Women’s Studies course or a feminist professor will get a much fuller expansion of the idea that gender is whatever you choose it to be.
While it certainly isn’t the university’s job to shore up the concept of traditional marriage, neither is its role to debunk it. Unfortunately, the university is now host to a variety of “advocacy” oriented fields that see themselves explicitly as promoting social change aimed at dispossessing the traditional family. Family law professors (among others, Martha Fineman at Cornell, Martha Ertman at the University of Utah, and Nancy Polikoff at American University) have attempted to theorize the way forward and the success of the gay marriage movement is testimony to the success of an idea that first appeared in law review articles only about fifteen years ago.
While family law, women’s studies, gay studies, and the like eat away at the root conceptions of the family, students encounter a different anti-family force in the dorms. Dorm life is frequently characterized by physical intimacy without emotional intimacy—the culture recently described by Kathleen Bogle in Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. The term “hooking up” in fact has attracted a bibliography of its own ranging from “how to” guides to serious scholarship, such as Dona Freitas’ Sex and the Soul. Hooking up turns out to be far more popular with boys than girls. A report by Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt at the Institute for American Values “Hooking up, Hanging out, and Hoping for Mr. Right,” is based on interviews with 1,000 female college students, including 63 of them at great length. Among other things, the study reaches the conclusion that 83% of women want to get married someday, and most of those want to meet their husbands in college.
Yet campus culture is not particularly hospitable to marital aspirations. “Hooking up,” was defined by the study’s respondents as “when a guy and girl get together for a physical encounter without necessarily expecting anything further.” Hooking up has become part of the folklored “college experience” even though only 40% of females say that they have “hooked up” in college. And only 10% have done it more than 6 times.
Whether these statistics seem high or low, the effect is a perception of college life as one-night-stands and “friends with benefits.” Combine this “no-strings-attached” dating scene with professors chopping at the roots of the family, and college students are hard-pressed. Look beyond the college grounds, and in the real world 50% of marriages end in divorce and 50.4% of all births to women under thirty are out of wedlock. Whether by choice or misfortune, women are raising their children alone. As it becomes increasingly normal for women to raise children on their own, the role and the expectation of a father will be dismissed.
Take for example the most intentional version of single motherhood. Successful single women want to have biological children before they get too old, but they’re neither married nor soon-to-be married. Usually these women have wanted nothing more than to start a traditional family with a loving husband, but even when the right man doesn’t come along, these women are unwilling to give up their dreams of having children. Artificial insemination (AI) is an imperfect plan “B” for single women longing to be mothers. Those babies are conceived with the knowledge that they will not have a father in their lives. They are wanted and loved, but they will only have one parent. Women who do this are usually financially stable enough to pay for the procedure and take care of a child, but it is dangerous for society to make single motherhood a norm, even in this relatively controlled situation. Not only does the child grow up without a father (intentionally, not by unfortunate circumstances), but it puts poor women into a position where men and society expect them to do the same.
The topic of women having children out of wedlock by means of artificial insemination may seem remote from the influence of college on future mothers and fathers, but the connections are stronger than one might think. Fourteen states mandate that insurance coverage cover infertility treatment, so that in Massachusetts, for example, female undergraduate students are obligated by state law to carry such coverage. There is a broad movement within the medical community to treat infertility as a disease, and the advocates of this position give no consideration at all to the marital status of a woman or the question of whether a child she bears will have a father. This is a position advocated on campus and, at least in some states, embodied in statute.
Kay S. Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal writes:
More ordinary “choice mothers,” as many single women using AI now call themselves, are usually not openly hostile to fathers, but they boast a language of female empowerment that implicitly trivializes men’s roles in children’s lives. The term “choice mothers” frames AI as a matter of women’s reproductive rights. Only the woman’s decision making—or intention—carries moral weight.”
It’s hard not to see the stealthy role of feminism in these newer developments. The message of feminism’s first wave—and aspects of the second wave—has been distorted. Sure, a woman doesn’t need a man in order to live a happy and successful life, but doesn’t a child need a father? Women claimed self-sufficiency and now fewer men are sticking around.
I worry about the future of these choice children and other fatherless families partly because I have seen some my own friends struggle. My friends with “daddy issues,” whether due to divorce, abandonment, or emotional estrangement, are currently in college or just graduated. On the whole, they seem to me inordinately starved for male attention or else they irrationally distrust men. Of course, it is impossible to know in any particular case whether an absent or non-existent father is the deepest cause, but looking on from a distance, I see a pattern.
Carolyne never knew her father. She was a smart girl in high school, but she had a people-pleaser personality and she seemed to find her worth especially in what guys thought of her. When Carolyne went to a large public university, she had thousands of guys to please, and soon she was getting senselessly drunk and hooking up, despite having been rather tame in high school. On breaks, she boasts of her “college experience.” My other friends without involved fathers have similar stories, though varying in degrees. Some are afraid to go a month without a boyfriend, others are afraid to have a steady boyfriend (since it will more than likely end in rejection). Jeannette dates men her father’s age, and Prudence has a knack for finding womanizers and misogynists. She can’t comprehend that a good man would ever be interested in her.
Am I trading in stereotypes? Perhaps. But Carolyne, Jeannette, and Pru are real people (though their names aren’t) and what I’m really doing is trying to comprehend the pain and confusion of some of my friends. In my world, children without fathers suffer, and the “privilege” women have gained to become “choice mothers” sounds ominous. Moreover, I have the inescapable sense that the contemporary university is on the side of such “choice.” In a thousand ways, it diminishes the moral weight of the traditional family and trivializes the deep distinction between mere “parenting” and the vital roles of mother and father.
Of course, it is not the university’s purpose to promote or save the institution of marriage or the family. But neither is it the mission of higher education to deconstruct the family. That task grows out of an ideological agenda that aims to institute profound changes in the name of “social justice.” The advocates of this agenda should have their hearing, but they shouldn’t be the only voice on campus. Most of the students will, after all, forego a life of hooking up, polyamory, same-sex union, choice-mothering, or whatever other family-hostile ideas and practices higher ed can devise. They will instead become married mothers and fathers who will make their varied attempts to succeed at an institution that their university education has taught them is oppressive, stifling, unfulfilling, retrograde, and above all unfashionable. Surely higher education would perform a more noble service by preparing students for the adult lives they will actually lead instead of trying to turn one and all into social revolutionaries.