Tom Wolfe’s most recent book, I am Charlotte Simmons, tells the story of a naïve rural girl who earns a scholarship to a prestigious urban university. Expecting to find an intellectually stimulating environment, Charlotte instead discovers a culture that promotes alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity and a “party ‘til you drop” mentality. Confused about her new surroundings, Charlotte calls her best friend, Laurie, who suggests that Charlotte needs to leave her small town morals behind and embrace a spirit of experimentation. Laurie says,
I guess what I really mean is college is like this four-year period you have when you can try anything—and everything—and if it goes wrong, there’s no consequences? You know what I mean? Nobody’s keeping score. College is the only time in your life, or your adult life anyway, when you can really experiment, and at a certain point… everybody’s memory like evaporates. You tried this and this and this and this, and you learned a lot about how things are, but nobody’s gonna remember it. It’s like amnesia, totally, and there’s no record, and you leave college exactly the way you came in, pure as rainwater.
Unfortunately, this is the mindset many students have about college, and they won’t realize until later how little basis it has in reality. Choices have consequences, even those made in college. Life keeps score, even during college. And the only ones with amnesia are the ones who forget what they did while intoxicated. No one leaves college “exactly the way you came in.”
Students’ college experiences have both immediate and long-lasting effects. We have seen all too recently the tragic consequences resulting from fraternity binge drinking and drunk driving. Sexual promiscuity leaves many with a lifetime of dealing with sexually transmitted diseases. Even the seemingly innocuous habit of blogging can have negative consequences. Recent syndicated columns in the Fresno Bee on ethics and careers discussed how employers are searching websites such as MySpace.com and Xanga for the blogs of prospective employees. Some of these prospects eliminate themselves from consideration because of unwise online musings.
Looking further down the road, we also see that young adults (and the rest of us) set the stage for future struggles through the choices they make on a daily basis. Virtually all of us have seen the effects of addiction on our families and friends, and know intuitively what researchers have discovered—that early experimentation leads to dramatically higher alcoholism rates. Additionally, binge drinking causes almost immediate, irreversible death of brain cells.
Sexual experimentation also makes possible a variety of unintended consequences. Promiscuity not only leads to unwanted pregnancies and STDs, but also raises the question of how a pattern of disposable relationships will affect a person’s future marriage(s)—a recent Georgetown University student newspaper column explored this very topic. With this generation of students striving to reverse the divorce trend they’ve seen in their parents’ generation, it is sadly ironic that many have bought into a “hook-up” culture that may virtually guarantee relational instability.
Even the choices one makes regarding honesty and cheating create patterns for the future. If a student is willing to buy a research paper online or text message answers to a friend during a test, how big of a leap is it to envision similar dishonesty in a business career? Many people would scoff at such a connection, but as C.S. Lewis wisely stated, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” Virtually no one decides out of the blue to be unfaithful to his or her spouse, to become an alcoholic, to gamble away the mortgage money or to commit accounting fraud. People end up doing those things as the result of many small choices that lead them to a destination they never intended to visit.
College is certainly a time of exploration, as students discover what they want to do, who they want to be and what values they will hold. Exploration, however, is not synonymous with wanton experimentation. Even as they explore what values they will hold, college students can still make wise choices. In doing so, they join a significant percentage of their peers who make their own way, choosing what is better, not just what is easy in the moment. Whether they realize it or not, they set the stage for a healthier adulthood by the choices they make this weekend.
Rod Reed, M. Div., is campus pastor and dean of spiritual development at Fresno Pacific University. He also teaches classes on leadership, biblical studies and Christian ministries.