Every human being comes of age, if they live long enough. It is the transition between childhood and adulthood, and is far more ancient than humanity. In some organisms, the juvenile form ceding to adulthood is more spectacular even than our own—consider the metamorphoses of egg into frog through a tadpole stage, or that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
In all human cultures, therefore, the transition to adulthood exists, whether formally recognized as coming of age, or not. Formal moments of transition are common enough—from bar and bat mitzvahs for 13 year old Jewish children, to quinceañeras for 15 year old girls in Mexico and, to some degree, elsewhere in Latin America. Rarer—but also more reflective of the fact that one does not in fact become an adult in a moment, but rather over years of observation and experience—are the traditions that take months or years. The Amish tradition of rumspringa, for instance, is that period in a young Amish person’s life when the rules are relaxed, when they “run around,” after which they must choose between returning to the church, with all of its restrictions and protections, or leaving it entirely1.
Perhaps the most famous invocation of coming of age is by Margaret Mead, who in 1928 wrote of her understanding of youth in the South Pacific, in Coming of Age in Samoa. While it has come to light2 that at least a few of Mead’s informants were less than honest with her, making some of the material in the book less ethnography than wishful thinking, her direct observations of culture are telling. She observes, for instance, in a chapter on dance, that “Dancing is the only activity in which almost all ages and both sexes participate…..In the dance there are virtuosos but no formal teachers. It is a highly individual activity set in a social framework.” A few pages later she argues that “The significance of the dance in the education and socialisation of Samoan children is two-fold. In the first place it effectively offsets the rigorous subordination in which children are habitually kept. Here the admonitions of the elders change from ‘Sit down and keep still!’ to ‘Stand up and dance!’ The children are actually the centre of the group instead of its barely tolerated fringes.”3
This fluidity between being central and being peripheral, the transition from neophyte to expert, the ability to learn and display knowledge individually, but within a “social framework”—all of this feels familiar to the modern reader who is thinking about what it means to become an adult.
When I was a college professor, I was required to teach my fair share of first-year students. That’s “freshmen” to most of us, and while my classes often included more women than men, they were indeed fresh—new to the world, and in the world. I was there to inspire and educate them, to expose them to new ways of thinking, to reveal to them that not only are there things that they do not yet know, but there are things that we do not yet know, we the humans, we who would often seem to have it all figured out. Yes, there are new things under the sun, and there always will be. Yes, dear freshmen: there is much for you to do, to discover and invent and create and produce, should any of those things be your path.
My job was all of those things, and my job was also, unlike what is possible or perhaps even recommended in most college classrooms, to build community among the students and between us all, through demonstrable respect for the humanity of everyone in the room, and through shared experiences which bond people—field trips to places with no access to the virtual world, where we broke bread together and sat around campfires and looked at the night sky, full of stars.
This job was tremendously satisfying, by and large, and yet when I taught all-freshman classes, I inevitably became somewhat frustrated. Because of the way that Evergreen was structured, the curriculum that I created, and my delivery of it, were, while the students were in my programs, the entire extent of their academic world. And yet it was hardly their entire college experience. Their academic world was, for many, but a tiny part of their life. And in some ways, what I delivered was less important to many of them, and for them, than what they were learning elsewhere.
When I would grow exasperated with the freshmen in my care, wondering at the lack of discipline or passion or appreciation, at the bleary eyes and at the showing up late or not at all, I had to remind myself of this fact: I would not have wanted to have me as a student when I was a freshman in college, either.
I had been an excellent student in high school, and it came easily to me, and I would become an excellent student again soon enough, but for that first year of college, academics wasn’t primarily what I was thinking about. There was, I will simply say, a lot of experimentation going on4.
College is not a random walk through ideas, exactly, but it can be—and I believe often should be—a haphazard one. A person may enter college with ideas and plans, but those ideas and plans should be capable of changing with exposure to the wide world of intellectual activity that an institution of higher ed offers.
As Rutgers undergraduate Eric said to anthropologist Michael Moffatt in 1984, “When I came here, all I wanted to do was major in business and become an accountant, and I just took the courses I had to. Then, in my sophomore year, I started to get dissatisfied. I realized I was cheating myself. College should do more than just get you ready for a job in life. It might be the last time you have in life to try new things, to experiment, to really broaden yourself.”5
The haphazardness, in the undergraduate’s haphazard walk through ideas, is an intrinsic part of the value. It’s like finding a book in the stacks at an actual library, and then walking down the row while keeping your eyes open, turning right, then left, then left again, until you are in a wholly different section, but your eyes are still open, and you find something you did not know that you were looking for. In the 21st century, electronic search is ever more common than physical search, so our algorithms do much of our work for us. But algorithms are quite the opposite of haphazard. They point you to what, on the basis of your past, they think your future should hold. Algorithms are restricted and narrow, and are no match for the expansive, infinite curiosity of the human mind.
Modern college too often prescribes the walk that you take through ideas: maybe you get to take a year or two to declare your major, but you spend that time getting your other requirements out of the way, and then the major itself ever narrows your scope. Modern college thus has a tendency to canalize, in the language of genetics and neurobiology: it facilitates you taking a particular pathway, which then further deepens over time. Positive feedback and reinforcement make it ever harder to leave the path. The longer trod the path, the less likely you can even see over its sides, and be reminded that there is actually a great big world out there to be experienced6.
Similarly, college can be understood as a haphazard walk through a social world. The more elite the institution, the less haphazard the walk, the more prescribed by others from the start. But there are still choices to be made, and the possibility to engage with people who don’t remind you of yourself at all. You can come to know people in college who have not had your experiences, do not know your family, are from a different culture or ethnicity or religion or class—all of this is priceless. Perhaps you meet people who had fewer opportunities than you did, but are accomplished in cross country, or robotics, or chess, worlds about which you know nothing—but now you can learn. Or you may meet people who had more opportunities than you, but have a more difficult time than you in constructing careful arguments based on first principles rather than authority. And there is something to be learned there, too.
Linguist John McWhorter recently wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that high school and college have both experienced mission creep, and that we ought to rethink whether everyone should be expected to go to college. Almost one hundred years earlier, Mead made a similar point in Coming of Age in Samoa, arguing that the “continual raising of the age and grade until which schooling is compulsory ensures a wide educational gap between many parents and their children.” Compulsory schooling itself has a long and fraught history7, and increasing the time that children are required to spend in school may serve the financial interests of parents (allowing both mothers and fathers to join the labor force), and the interests of some employers (facilitating the rise of a compliant and complacent work force), but, at least as generally instantiated, it rarely serves the interests of the actual children and young adults being schooled.
At the very moment that McWhorter was attending Rutgers as a scholarly and diligent undergraduate, anthropologist Michael Moffatt was conducting anthropological research in the Rutgers dorms. The resulting book, Coming of Age in New Jersey, describes what Moffatt learned while engaging in participant observation—first in 1977, while early in his career as a professor at Rutgers, when he pretended instead to be an undergraduate, living in the dorms, partaking of college life. The ruse of it lasted only a few days, a week maybe, but he stayed in touch with the freshmen he had met then, and returned to the dorms as an anthropologist for a day and a night every week the following academic year, and he did so again six years after that, in 1984, when McWhorter was there.
I read both of these books—Mead’s classic and Moffatt’s then new tome—in a cultural anthropology class while I was in college myself in the early 90’s. This was in my second half of college, having spent a year away, and having recovered my academic bent. I could by then reflect with some distance on my freshman year in the dorms, and I found much recognizable in Moffatt’s ethnography. In a culture that is so heterogenous that there are nearly no shared norms, among many of those who do attend residential college, there is a commonality: college is the first moment of freedom from the watchful eyes of the family.
We might talk endlessly of the delaying of maturity, of the pushing ever later that moment when our children are expected to become adults, but it is nevertheless true that, as formalized by the early- to mid- 20th century practice of in loco parentis, colleges have understood their role, in part, to be taking the reins from parents. It is thus to be expected that the students understand their role, in part, to be resisting the reins. There is transition there, the coming of age being inevitable, but many young people are pushing against something that they can’t even quite find or name. Without the clear boundaries established by, say, the Amish church, around rumspringa—after this, you make a choice, and it is absolute: you stay, or you leave—the endless choice of modern Western civilization becomes a hazard in and of itself.
And yet. Allow me to end with a final quotation from Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead’s words that were published nearly 100 years ago, revealing a prescience that was perhaps too far ahead of its time to be well understood then.
For it must be realized by any student of civilisation that we pay heavily for our heterogeneous, rapidly changing civilisation; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in the conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses, we pay in the lack of a coherent tradition without which the development of art is sadly handicapped. In such a list of prices, we must count our gains carefully, not to be discouraged. And chief among our gains must be reckoned this possibility of choice, the recognition of many possible ways of life, where other civilisations have recognized only one. Where other civilisations give a satisfactory outlet to only one temperamental type, be he mystic or soldier, business man or artist, a civilisation in which there are many standards offers a possibility of satisfactory adjustment to individuals of many different temperamental types, of diverse gifts and varying interests.
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I have not read all of this book, but it seems to be an excellent description of what rumspringa is actually like: Stevick 2014. Growing up Amish: The rumspringa years. JHU Press.
I don’t agree with all of the conclusions of the linked article, and find the tone of it indicative of conclusion-driven thinking, but it does provide a compelling account of how at least one informant viewed Mead’s questions.
The quotations from Mead’s 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa are, in the Morrow Quill edition (ISBN 0-688-30974-7) from pages 110, and 117, respectively. Later quotations are from p236-7, and p247.
I went to three colleges, and declared three different majors, on my sometimes very haphazard walk through undergraduate life. During this time I lived in two very different college towns in California, plus Northampton, Massachusetts; came to know people as varied as the female physics major who was looking forward to returning to South Asia for an arranged marriage, and Bob Trivers, evolutionary biologist and legend; and took classes including but not limited to Aesthetics, Astronomy, Book Arts, Brazilian Society and Culture, Calculus, Cybernetics, Early World History, Physiology and Behavior, Greek Tragedies, Kundera & Solzhenitsyn, Mask Making, Medical Anthropology, Neuroscience, Primate Behavior, Religious Approaches to Death, Social Evolution, Statistics, 20th Century American Literature, and 20th Century Debate: Modern Human Origins. Along with a goodly amount of learning, and holding down part-time jobs, and engaging in objectively reasonable behavior, I did a fair number of stupid things, and also had a tremendous amount of fun.
As reported in (the excellent book) Moffatt, M., 1989. Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture. Rutgers University Press. P284.
I wrote about the actual paths worn deep by the pre-Columbian Yumbo people of the Andes, which are still walkable by us moderns, in this piece: In the Footsteps of Those Who Came Before.
See Gatto 2010. Weapons of Mass Instruction: A schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. New Society Publishers.