On Higher Education & Infantilization

“I wish schools would take our cell phones away from us.” — Approximately 90% of my students on their #1 recommendation to improve the educational environment (in both K-12 and college).

Facebook post from a Texas College instructor


“Take” is troubling: a deferment of responsibility to an abstract authority. Why do schools have to take mobile technology away from students? Are they not able to control their own behavior? Must the responsible action be an obligation overseen by some external figure of power? This, this is the concern: an institution is given onus for doing what should be done instead of each individual taking hold of his or her own will to act. Not only that, but the technology is accused of being the problem. Is it the sun’s fault if someone gets burnt? Here is rationalization.

Even worse, a policy statement that cell phones are not allowed in classrooms implies that students who populate those rooms are not capable of making decisions about their own actions. Are college students not adults? If not, there may need to be some other drastic changes to the age at which people vote, drink, enlist in the military, get married, or make any other “adult decisions” with lasting consequences. Although, clearly such a slippery slope is unproductive. There is, however, a systemic problem that the statement implies, one that warrants a bit of investigation into how American youth are being raised, educated, and how (if) they become adults.

It also, in some ways, neglects just how ubiquitous technology is in information exchange and acquisition. Access to the wealth of knowledge the internet provides often allows students to define unfamiliar terms or seek out background context on a historical figure. Cell phones are not necessarily the problem; they are just tools. It is not the hammer or the existence of a hammer that is at fault for a hammer used to injure someone; it was certainly not designed for that purpose.

In fact, it seems sensible even to allow cell phones in classrooms at least at a college level. Learning to use technology as a resource for investigation/inquiry is a skill people need in the 21st century as much as the ability to judge when to use and not use that technology. When students graduate and land a position somewhere, they will have their mobile device with them and have to know how to manage time, attention, and resources. What is college if not part of the rite of passage, preparation for moving into the adult world?

Sure, recognizing a potential for the mis- or overuse of cellular devices is important for those who have never considered such a problem, or relevant situations, or taking control of their own actions and thoughts—those who are still learning to be their own boss. Students’ acknowledgement of an existing over reliance on mobile communication devices suggests they are at least, in part, aware of an exigency behind finding a way for technology to serve instead of rule. The students’ wishes here implies some measure of recognition that something other than what they have been doing should be done. The problem is how the solution is framed.

It would seem that in the eyes of at least some college students there is conflation of fault and responsibility that likely stems from their limited experiences; their education has been in institutions where they have no power or responsibility or where personal success is not determined their own choices. Thus, the consequence is a reappropriation of primary/secondary systems onto higher education. It is what they know. The problem, though, is that in doing so and the institution (often) catering to the audience’s expectations in this case, the difference between childhood and adulthood becomes even fuzzier. There is already a lot of cultural reinforcement of young adults’ non-adultness. Consider the many infantilized protagonists and characters in popular media; those are their role models. If higher education, like K-12, is expected to lord over student behavior to compensate for this trend, how are students going to learn to empower themselves?

It’s assumed that adolescents and children require parenting/care giver behavior in addition to instruction at school; they are not adults. They haven’t been conditioned into social norms or acquired the habits of autonomy. However, higher education is (supposed to be) adult education, a place where young people can hash out who they are, acquire the knowledge and skills needed out in the real world, and become self-made through their own labor and experiences. Ergo, responsibility at the collegiate level has to shift from parental figures to students themselves; that’s how they should want it to be, not looking for a mommy or daddy to set bedtimes, oversee chores, enforce rules of behavior. The alternative is a preference for extended adolescence, rejecting growing up. It like saying, “I prefer to be a subject than my own master.” This is not the kind of value that cultivates independence.

Typical adolescence often produces the expression of rebellious and more socially conscious behavior as the frontal cortex develops and hormones transform the mind-body toward biological maturity. Some evolutionary psychological studies suggest that the rebellious behavior is necessary for the gradual separation of the child from the parents, which is required for personal autonomy. Unless there is an inclination to question, challenge, and self-reflect, how can a child discover who he or she is? What the students’ proclamation suggests, however, is that even the rebellion of adolescence is dampened. In its place is a willing acceptance of outside control without question, even a desire for it.

In a country where liberty is held up as the second national value, second only to life, it’s rather terrifying to think that young adults would willingly accept subjugation over their own will power. They probably do not even realize the implications of asking someone else to take an opportunity to choose away from them. In some ways, granted, it is not their fault that they think that way. As young adults, they are still discovering themselves and that they are capable of being the author’s of their own destinies. In the meantime, though, why not shift cultural reinforcement toward a desire for self-respect, self-control, and self-worth? Why not make those values part of development instead of expecting them as a mere consequence of age?

American culture has fostered this misguided mindset, where young adults wait to be told what to do and what to think in spite of cherished platitudes about life, liberty, and happiness. Their educational experience up to that point in life probably focused very little on creating critically minded, self-aware, self-managing individuals who seek out changes in themselves that they want to see. They are trained to be consumers, not producers, workers, not leaders, passive members of the heard, not active individuals in charge of their own fates. They probably don’t even know that they could control much of their own futures, if only they took ownership of themselves, much less what owning oneself means.

Such an anti-intellectualism movement in the country is the glass ceiling that holds young people down because they don’t even challenge it; they don’t see it. It is as normal as fast food in their diets. It is the kind of self-devaluation that is typical in self-victimization. How did such a poison get into the cultural ground water?

If only there were the kind of fostering of ingenuity, inquiry, curiosity, personal excellence, mastery, artistry in education that is seen in the flowering of Florence’s renaissance, perhaps students would want to be self-possessed. Unless those values are in education, unless young people are exposed to such notions before their minds are set and paths are limited by the choices they didn’t make, how will they find their way to those better fortunes?  A rich education invests people with value; without it, they become liabilities in having their options stolen from them and replaced with empty rhetoric.

If students do not know they are being enculturated into giving up free will and self awareness, there may be no greater duty of educators than to help them discover this—how to create themselves. To gloss over or neglect this problem is to reinforce social hierarchy without upward mobility, without the potential of being self-possessed, without the transition into an adulthood where people can be conscious enough to choose what they do and how they do it.

Taking away young people’s ability to control their own actions may be the most devious of condescensions. If I were them, I would not stand for it; I would not take it quietly like some policy maker or faceless institution were my betters. Doing so is like turning the body into a perfect environment for cancer and blaming the food and the couch, or never going for a physical despite a family history of cancer. That individual is bound to a tragic but preventable fate.

In this case, by contrast, the adults who are in charge and have more perspective are responsible for what their youngers are exposed to. Denying them the mirror and the eye that might reveal the illusion of controllessness is the kind of cruelty typical of masters lording over things they see beneath them, as objects, as servants. It is no different than American slaveholders denying their living property the ability to read and write; ignorance is easy to control with fear and force. That is not the kind of culture that produces respect, dignity, decency. It creates dependency instead of autonomy. It is the sort of culture the founding documents of this country declare themselves against. No citizen, really no sentient being should accept such indignation.

Even if young people ought to fight back against their primary/secondary education’s subliminal passifying, preventing further generations from falling prey to such antiquated systems of social limitation is really up to those who have somehow managed to get out of the trap, to crawl out of the cave. Whoever has the opportunity to help release those still down in the darkness, if they are enlightened, if they are noble and good have to make the effort to liberate their countrymen. There aren’t many who can do it on their own, but then again, there is little environmental pressure to produce those kinds of people. Human beings adapt; if we want the kind of world where people can think for themselves, who can put thought into their every action, we have to create an environment worth adapting to instead of waiting for it to happen to us.

Each man for himself but also everyman.


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About thepoetsglass

Professor, poet, philosophical dilettante, plus some other impressively heady alliterations. Instructional designer and copywriter. Cognitive neuroscientist by night. Self-diagnosed coffee addict, sometime dancer, brooding bibliophile, and an always salty sailor.
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