I spoke at the SCM national gathering in York last weekend, and drew some thoughts together from my book Other about the apparently universal importance of a period of interruption in the transition from adolescence to full adulthood. This interruption is generally accompanied by a period of removal or withdrawal from the host community.
We see it in the Maasai emorata ritual and in the Amish rumspringa. The withdrawal from the community, in both cases, serves as a way for the community to eventually be strengthened, as those moving into adulthood learn to appreciate where they have come from by its absence, and have time to reflect on returning to take up service within the community.
This period of interruption can also have elements of pain, of darkness and testing. Paul was literally blinded on the road to Damascus, and had to spend time questioning everything he had held dear. And Jesus spent time in the wilderness, battling with his great antagonist as he considered what sort of ministry he was going to have.
And this has traditionally been the place of university. There is generally a removal from the community. People leave home, perhaps for the first time, and have to fend for themselves. They are thrown into a deep ocean of wide and rich knowledge – very different from the shallower bays of secondary school – and are challenged on all sorts of levels. In the old language there is something quite monastic: one ‘goes up’ to university, and then ‘comes down’ after graduation. There is a sense of going up the mountain to learn and reflect on what ministry you are going to have, and then coming down, returning to your host community to serve, having been trained and exposed to the best knowledge around.
The concern I raised at the conference was that this sense of a time to reflect on life is in danger of being lost if economic pressures continue to be increased on university education. With tuition fees rising so much, there is huge pressure now for courses to be ‘worth it’ – and thus driven to be efficient and value for money. The upshot of this is firstly that people already have to have one eye on whether the course will likely lead them into a job afterwards, and secondly there is no time for reflection.
In other words, time cannot be wasted any more.
The problem with this is that much of the benefit of university is in the time to pause, to waste time and cast off the mantels that parents and schools have thrown on us… Without this time to waste we are in danger of simply becoming the people others expect of us, rather than the people we want ourselves to be. Moreover, this extra-curricular time is hugely productive. Think about it: without time to waste at university there would be no Radiohead, no Footlights, no Monty Python, no Facebook. All of these are the product of time-wasting students.
Interestingly, just after the weekend MIT announced that they are starting towards a ‘fully automated’ degree. People will be able to log on, receive instruction, be assessed on whether they have assimilated that information, and be awarded credits for doing so. This is the end-game of a capitalist, hyper-efficient approach to education. Raw information is uploaded to a person. There is no need for interaction or discussion. No need for doubt. Just upload new firmware to make you more productive.
This materialist approach to education – the reduction of everything to a problem of information transfer – could be disastrous from a social and cultural perspective. It flies in the face of a seemingly universal archetype: that in the transition from adolescence to adulthood people need to break the law a little, step out of the treadmill, out of the need to worry about jobs and money and waste some time… and get wasted.
Bouncing off these ideas, I presented the story of the prodigal son as a tragedy – of a young person with energy and vision, who works hard to escape the selfish economic worldview that they have inherited… but ultimate fails. They return home, the comfortable cloak and ring are put on again… and nothing has changed. Their family are still rich. There is still famine outside their walls. The father has found his successor. And so it repeats.
It’s a depressing situation… Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism:
‘British students know things are bad, but more than that, they, they know they can’t do anything about it.’
My hope is that we can do something about it… But, young prodigals, it’s going to take some doing.