What are they thinking? Today’s students, that is. Living on a college campus is sometimes a jigsaw landscape with silhouette holes in the picture constantly seeking completion by the absent puzzle pieces. I keep office hours just for students to visit and talk about anything. They do, but they don’t talk about everything, so I’m still left guessing about parts of their lives and education.
Except for Grace Potter, we rarely find overlapping preferences in music. I do better in the area of food pleasures, travel experiences and favorite classes. Issues of the day probing environmental dangers, perspectives on race and considerations of social class are never far away. I enjoy the regular occasions of dinner when I’m at a lively table with a small group of students, though typically they are more self-conscious of each other than they are about my presence. I’ve learned over the years not to mistake reserve for a lack of deep thought or unresolved feelings. Still water runs deep.
And yet, when asked about the challenges and worries in front of liberal arts colleges today, I reliably express them in economic terms, using the familiar balance-sheet language of revenue streams, market demand, expense creep, compliance costs and reputational capital. In addition to the weight of this worry, I carry the vivid concerns drawn by the strain between family financial resources and the price curve of tuition.
My daily puzzle-solving, however, always returns to the intellectual and emotional state of today’s St. Lawrence students. They have a lot on their minds, and some of it, some days, is overwhelming. While they accumulate measureable reasons to be confident in their futures, gaining larger capacities of self-reliance, academic proficiency and elevated curiosity, there often comes with this added maturity a low-grade, nameless apprehensiveness buzzing about their psyches. Generally, I would make allowances for the variation in individual circumstances, but I read these times of our students as somehow transcending and brushing against all of them, not only some of them, with an amorphous unease.
Much of the St. Lawrence experience can be felt and understood as undifferentiated, that is, indistinguishably co-educational, neither male nor female in its sensibility. From the University’s founding, common ground always existed for men and women to dwell upon together, as shared instances of happiness, occurring in the same corners of campus that eventually shaped sacred memories for everyone, whether female or male. Who doesn’t love the “enchanted forest” on the slope of Herring-Cole? Or can look down the Avenue of the Elms without a feeling of lasting serenity?
I believe, in any case, there are also notable differences on campus between men and women in how the furniture gets arranged on the second floor of their minds. Perhaps this disparity is a universal truth for all generations, but this time seems different, at least in degree. So, what are the young men thinking at St. Lawrence today that slightly separates them from the young women?
Prior generations of Laurentian men once came to campus mindful of the Selective Service’s potential for ominous disruption. But the differences in the formative experience of college men and women then, even in the presence of a male-only military draft, easily simplifying the architecture of gender long ago, may ironically be much sharper in divergence today. And it’s a puzzle, a constant challenge, to get at why that seems true.
Beginning in the 1980s, a gender variance became increasingly pronounced in most American colleges as enrollments shifted like tectonic plates, rising for women and falling for men, both at dramatically inverted rates (St. Lawrence’s ratio remains consistently 46 percent male); proportionally fewer men are interested in studying abroad than women; fewer men are choosing majors in the humanities and arts than in the past; and the student demand for mental health counseling and mentoring support, particularly by men on campus, has also risen markedly. Rather than alarming, it is powerfully indicative to me that more young men are open to talk therapy. Further and importantly, given our historic grounding in diversity and pluralism, our St. Lawrence male students of color are outperforming all the national averages with graduation rates that remain on par with those of their white classmates.
The young women at St. Lawrence, of course, are not excused from some truly difficult issues of life, but their sense of order, purpose and concentration is often expressed by fewer developmental distractions. We ponder, however, such curious, recurring anomalies as women constituting only 30 percent of the total majors in economics, but over 70 percent of all biology majors. More conspicuously, the leadership profile of St. Lawrence women demonstrates a wider spectrum of differing styles; some have poise and presence beyond their years, some are quietly attentive but are the reliable boulders for all others, and some will lead by doing and outwork everyone around them.
In my daily contact with students, I look for the footbridge lessons women and men can teach each other on campus. At dinner one night, a student gently explained to me, the only man at the table, that women are better at being “conversation managers.” That got my attention. Another student once rendered the meaning of manhood at St. Lawrence as acquiring the qualities of a “resilient competitor.” Put differently, ambition on campus usually discovers a deeper genius that only a set-back reveals. My hope for all of them is coupled by two of their own thoughts about “management” and “competition.” May each one know absolutely how a magnificent conversation feels and, also, that they are never alone when it’s a bad day.