We’re not quite adults, but we should be treated as such
It occurs to me that several of the debates that have taken place recently in Forum–most notably, Eve Samborn’s essay on pretending and the recent exchange over Peter Benson’s comments regarding the smoking ban—are, at the root, concerned with two pressing issues. The issues that lie at the heart of these two debates are, first, are we, as University students, adults, and, second, should we be treated as adults? These are issues that are not explicitly addressed in these pages frequently enough, and really deserve some space, since the answer to these questions seems to be key to both the relatively small issues of the smoking ban and Jeff Nelson’s State of the Union address, and the large issues of what it means to attend a university and what we, as students, should be doing here.
The answer to the first question—whether we are adults—is relatively straightforward, from my point of view, for most of us. We can quibble about the exact definition of “adult,” but the bottom line is that, outside a few small areas (I manage to cook my own food, somehow), I am entirely dependent on the support of my parents. From my point of view, this means that there is no way that I can claim to be a full adult. And as I am a senior, and quickly see my graduation date approaching, I must admit that I am also not eager to make that claim just yet.
The answer to the second question—whether we should be treated as adults—is, in my view, not identical to the answer to the first question, and slightly more complex. We may not be full adults, but does this mean that we should not try to conduct ourselves as if we were? Think about the implications of the reverse claim. Should college students really not act as if they were responsible for their actions? Should they not act as if they can make a difference in this world, or, at the very least, as if what they did mattered? I would hope that we would all try to act as if we were full members of this society, with the same responsibilities toward ourselves and toward the people and the world around us that anyone else has. I cannot imagine another way to live one’s life that could remotely be considered ethical.
And outside the ethical implications of not treating students like adults, there is an even more serious social-justice aspect to the question. While we may argue about what it actually means to be an adult, the law has a much simpler definition. In the United States, at the age of 18, everyone is given the rights and responsibilities of the citizen, regardless of whether they are in college or not. In my eyes, it is neither just to deprive a legal citizen of his rights, nor just to relieve that citizen of his responsibility to obey the law. In terms of college, this means that a student should not be subject to interference in his or her personal life that he or she did not consent to through a democratic process. It also means that when a student commits a crime, he or she should not be referred to a University judiciary board but subjected to the same laws and punishments as anyone else his or her age. We may pay for a safe environment, but I would like to think that in the United States of America, nobody can pay to be excused to his right or from the law.
This, after all, is what people who argue that college students should not be treated as adults are really arguing. They are, at the core of their argument, asserting that it should be permissible in America to exchange money and privilege for a prolonged childhood that excuses the student from the ethical, moral and occasionally the legal responsibilities of adulthood. It is an argument that is unheard of in other parts of the world and unprecedented even here. If you are comfortable making such an argument, you are free to do so. I, for one, find it obscene.