University days, dangerous times

Newman once referred to his three and a half years at Trinity College Oxford as, ‘the dangerous season of my Undergraduate residence’.

At Oxford, Newman witnessed at first hand the consequences of that intoxicating mix of freedom and virtually no responsibility, and realised that formative living depended on the previous acquisition of good habits and on wise oversight by the authorities.

Today, the wisdom of generations and the experience of life seem to have been set aside. For centuries that part of the life-cycle between childhood and adulthood (from approximately fifteen to twenty-five) has traditionally been designated as the third of the seven ages of man, and the one which parents and educators regarded as the most dangerous.

It has been called:

‘the most dangerous tyme of all a man’s life, and most slipperie to stay well in’, Roger Ascham, Tudor schoolmaster

the ‘awkward interval’, Sir William Blackstone, Georgian legal codifier

Why this alarmist talk?

Today’s world is blasé to the point of being irresponsible about the ‘third age’, and yet in some respects the predicament of today’s students is more precarious than it ever was: most live away from home and inhabit an artificial world of opportunities and attractions, with few demands on them other than the academic, and belong to a society where there are rights aplenty, but few duties.

For an age which supposedly worships authenticity, there is a surprising amount of (unconscious) compliance with the dictates of the prevailing culture; and since the prevailing moral norms are minimal, there are few limits to self-indulgence other than the regard of one’s friends and the size of one’s bank overdraft.

Did you know that … a minor social revolution occurred in Britain in 1969, accelerating a process which had been going on for decades? In Newman’s time it was taken for granted that universities acted in loco parentis, but once the age of majority was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen, this ceased to be the case.

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