Thursday, August 19, 2010

Peer-driven culture

Frederica Mathewes-Green hits the nail on the head in "School and Career: Making It Work," the eleventh chapter in Real Choices. I was particularly interested in what she had to say about college students and pregnancy.

"On secular campuses, sexual activity has become less of a scandal than virginity, so pregnancy is not seen as shameful. It is, however, seen as stupid. A student at an Ivy League college told me that the campus health center refers about fifty women every year for abortions; yet in the previous five years the number of students who continued their pregnancies totaled zero."

Peer-driven culture has its own way of shaming. Instead of making you feel guilty, it just makes you feel stupid and/or left out. (I wonder which is worse? Guilt or stupidity?) While it's crucial to recognize the practical hardships that having a baby causes for a college student, it's equally if not more important to recognize the social pressure that causes women to abort. As Mathewes-Green puts it,
"The problems that pregnancy causes in school and job situations appear to be somewhat vague and occasional, and chiefly social in nature. The power of social pressure should not be underestimated, but it is a general human constant, not elicited by the specific obligations of school or job."
This applies especially to college students. One has to understand how the college experience is woven into our social fabric. A college student doesn't just expect to get an education. She expects to have four years that she will never forget, marked by experiences shared with other people her own age, and characterized also by a general lack of genuine responsibility. To at least some degree this expectation is encouraged (and to some extent maybe ought to be encouraged) by our parents; but the largest part of this expectation is given to us by our own peers.

The result of this expectation is that anything preventing that expectation from being fulfilled is to be shunned. That makes pregnancy just about the worst thing in the world. Unfortunately, abstaining from sex, if it isn't the second worst thing, is pretty close behind. In such circumstances, abortion seems like an inevitable fallback.

It's difficult to blame college women for this, though in the end we must all take responsibility for our choices. Yet I would argue that society's commitment to the college experience is almost religious in nature. It is treated as both necessary and deserved: necessary in the sense of being a cocoon out of which adults emerge, deserved as in some sort of birthright for middle- to upper-class children (often the elitism of this expectation fails to be recognized). A woman in college who suddenly finds herself pregnant can't possibly think of it as any less than an utter violation of the natural order of things. And yet the reality is nothing could be more natural: at an age when human beings are most fertile, it should not be surprising when sex leads to pregnancy. Yet the values of her culture have been so instilled in her that she will quite probably feel the most horrifying shock imaginable at the prospect of having a baby.

I know that there are many factors leading to abortion, but I suspect that one of the most crucial cultural factors leading to abortion is the fact that culture for people in their late teens and early 20's is almost entirely created by their peers. Our system of education makes it so. As children we're put together starting from the time we're four or five years old; we grow up together in school, possibly spending more of our waking hours with each other than with family, and certainly learning more about social life from each other than from our parents; and finally we go off to college to pursue the college experience, just as I've described above.

And this only continues after college, because it's totally ingrained in us. As 20-somethings, we continue to surround ourselves with other 20-somethings. It's not at all surprising that people my age would be so hesitant to get married, and even less surprising that they would be hesitant to have children. We just haven't been trained for that. The habits we've set for ourselves have been based on social norms set by our peers. We're not used to inter-generational relationships. We only know how to please our friends. How in the world would we raise kids?

To me it's not surprising that church-going Christians tend to marry younger than other people. I know it has something to do with values, but I suspect there's also something much more practical involved, as well. People who go to church see other people in different stages of life on a regular basis. They see families with little children; they see teenagers; they see grandparents. You never see these people at work (especially not in grad school). Churches can have a profound impact on people my age. Where else would we even get the idea that having children can be a good thing?

If we really want to work toward a culture of life, we may have to start being intentional about building inter-generational relationships. The more kids are allowed to define their own values, for themselves and for each other, the longer they'll stay kids, and the less they'll tend to value being connected to the whole of human society. Without that sense of connectedness, the value of human life is also diminished. More concretely, kids just tend to want sex without consequences. Without any sense of obligation to anything beyond the kid culture they have constructed, abortion becomes an all too attractive choice.

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