by Todd C. Ream
And to Think It Is Happening on Mulberry Street
In the Dr. Seuss classic, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Marco's father encourages him to use his imagination as he walks to school. As a result, Marco returns the next day having exchanged tales of the ordinary for tales of the extraordinary. Today, fearful parents deny (often for good reasons) all but a handful of children the opportunity to share in Marco's experience of walking to and from school. Some psychologists argue that such structured ways of life are taking a toll on the imaginative capacities of children. However, the most tragic toll may not be evident until the point in time when children are abruptly cut off from such supervision—the first year of college. If we dare to listen, these students are telling us tales in which the tragically extraordinary is now parading as the ordinary. Underdeveloped imaginations, particularly underdeveloped spiritual imaginations, leave many college students incapable of navigating the opportunities and challenges that college affords them. Without parents (or college educators) to turn to at this critical juncture in their lives, students are now seeing any number of things on Mulberry Street.
Contrary to popular sentiment, teenagers are interested in matters of religion and spirituality. In Soul Searching, a film based upon his book bearing the same title (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), Christian Smith notes that 85 percent of teenagers indicate they believe in God. One–third of teenagers attend religious services on a regular basis; one–third of teenagers attend sporadically; and the remaining third do not attend religious services at all. Smith found that when he compared the most religious teenagers with the least religious teenagers, the most religious teenagers were outperforming the least religious teenagers on almost every outcome measure. These measures include how well they were doing in school, how well they were doing in terms of relationships with their parents, and how well they were doing in terms of avoiding risky forms of behavior. However, the spiritual lives of teenagers compete with many other matters—homework, getting into college, girlfriends and boyfriends, and sports, not mention television, computer games, and surfing the web. While teenagers generally hold favorable views about religion, they also view religion as akin to "the furniture or wallpapers of their lives."
First–year students in college carry similar views of religion and spirituality as they did during their teenage or high school years. In The First Year Out, Tim Clydesdale contends that "Most youth secure critical identities and beliefs in a lockbox during their first year out, and I believe they remain there for quite some time thereafter." Student suspicion of large institutions such as colleges and universities contributes to the development of the lockbox. However, Clydesdale goes on to argue that "question[ing] critical identities" would also put this generation of college students "out of step with the mainstream of American culture they yearn to stay within." As a result, most college students find themselves practicing what Clydesdale calls "daily life management." The components of their lives that often need to be managed include interpersonal relationships, monies to be earned (and spent), and social activities to navigate. The strategies of the lockbox and daily life management emerge during the teenage years and then continue into college and perhaps beyond. High school is a tumultuous time, which brings with it a host of very real challenges. The problem is that what one sees on Mulberry Street during the high school years is far different from what one sees during the college years.
The details of what one sees during the college years come to life in Donna Freitas' Sex and the Soul and Laura Sessions Stepp's Unhooked. The common thread shared by these two authors is a concern over what they identify as the hookup culture. According to Stepp, "hooking up" consists of any and every sexual practice ranging from one kiss to intercourse. Regardless, the defining quality of hooking up is that "Feelings are discouraged, and both partners share an understanding that either of them can walk away at any time." (p.27). Freitas argues that this culture is now widespread on college campuses with the exception of evangelical institutions. Students at these institutions "typically enjoy non–alcohol–related socializing, and they express relief that their Christian culture largely shelters them from the hookup culture they see among friends attending public, non religious private, and Catholic colleges and universities." Freitas found that in terms of sexual practices, "faith seems to make them [students] more self–conscious and thoughtful."