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The Annals of Anxiety: Constructing Velcro Parents As A “Problem” For Higher Education

August 23, 2010, 12:56 pm

This morning I have been thinking about what kinds of criticisms are attached to warnings about cultural decline, and why. For example, our friend Historiann asks today why older people are always so critical of the young. Yeah, why is that? Particularly given the fact that generation after generation, young people seem to grow up into functional workers, consumers, artists, writers and financiers, no matter how much Facebook they do; how many video games they play; and how much/little they read.

Historiann’s emphasis on why cultural critique dominates, at the expense of a more relational view of cultural change and material outcomes, is an interesting corollary to William Julius Wilson’s 2009 reassessment of a sociological school of thought, of which he is a prominent architect, that highlights cultural explanations for Black poverty at the expense of structural analysis. In More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor In The Inner City, Wilson argues that structural forms of discrimination that are partly racial have acted in combination with other, non-racial, forces (such as the failure to invest in urban infrastructure and education, and workforce changes associated with globalization) to increase the burdens on Black people living in areas of core poverty. These things, he argues, cannot be separated from what is viewed by critics as cultural dysfunction in the same communities, such as the apparent unwillingness to work at low-paid jobs with no benefits. In other words, choices people make about their lives (many of which are heavily circumscribed by structural obstacles) and the world-view of the poor (which actually might be reframed as knowledge) are inextricable.

As if by a miracle, the New York Times printed a back-to-school article today which prompts a meditation on blaming and on anxiety about cultural decline. It’s about those apparently pathetic dweebs — late-boomer parents — who cling to their children relentlessly when dropping them off at liberal arts and Ivy League colleges. Mocked relentlessly as “Velcro” or “helicopter” parents, they are the stuff of campus legend, to which hours of summer strategy sessions are devoted. They decorate their children’s dorm rooms. They attend orientation. They book themselves into hotels for days, supposedly to help their children settle in, but in reality to help themselves separate. Extra deans are hired for the first week of school to hand out cheerful tee shirts and coffee mugs that say: “Get a life!”
OK, I’m kidding about the deans and the farewell tschochkes. But for a over a decade, residential colleges have operated under the assumption that late boomer parents are unnaturally traumatized about the loss of their babies, that they are likely to cling in annoying and unhealthy ways, and that their departure must be strategized like the draw-down from Iraq. Hence, the increasing importance of “‘hit the road’ departure ceremonies.” My favorite is the one in which students and parents are placed on opposite sides of the room, and college speakers greet the students while literally turning their backs on the parents.
Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry? Don’t forget to leave a check. Meanwhile, as you can imagine, we faculty are observing the scene of tearful departures and having a conversation that sounds like this:
“My parents just helped me carry my $hit upstairs, and then they left, and me and my roommates fired up the old bong-a-roony.”
My parents just unloaded my $hit on the $idewalk and drove away.”
My parents just put me on the red-eye with a duffle bag and a six-pack of beer.”
My parents just threw me out of the plane when it was circling over Harvard Square.”

Silence.

“That’s cold, man.”
“Yeah, really cold.”
“That’s the way it was, man. Gotta learn to survive. Gotta grow up. Look at these pussies.”
OK, that’s also not true. But it is true that few of us in higher ed who decry the programming done around move-in day would admit what forces of repression had to be mustered to get through the experience of leaving for school. Which of us can recall accurately how the time between the arrival at college and our family’s departure as a new and different unit that would go on forever (sob!) without us passed with time-warp speed? Or what it felt like to be left in a place, no matter how much we had desired it, where — except for the kids who had gone to boarding school — we hardly knew how to feed ourselves, much less find classroom buildings with strange names?
In fact, stories that critique parents for loving their children too much make me ask cultural and structural questions. One is: are today’s parents yesterday’s neglected children who are simply trying to do a better job than their own parents did? Is it perhaps better that parents and children are closer and more expressive with each other? In other words, to what extent does the devotion to children among late boomers demand reflection on changes in parenting styles during the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which bourgeois adults were putting their toes, and then their whole feet, in the waters of self-absorption at some cost to their children? A period in which vicious critiques of “momism,” as arch-conservative Philip Wylie put it in 1942, gave way to parental detachment and teenage autonomy? Remember the live and let live middle class ethic of Bill and Pat Loud, of An American Family (PBS, 1973) whose children used their southern California ranch house as a crash pad while their parents floated in and out of the house on a diet of alcohol, cigarettes and extra-marital affairs?
To what extent are parents who we criticize for over-parenting simply reflecting, whether realistically or not, on how neglected they felt as they were booted out of the nest?
So that’s the cu
ltural argument that requires some investigation, but it is one that is almost exclusively focused on the middle and upper classes, as is the critique of helicopter/Velcro parenting. A more embracing, and structural, direction for research would look at a broader class analysis of college attendance. It would take more seriously the fact that leaving one’s teenager at a residential college is an atypical experience nowadays, always has been, and because of the high cost of higher education, becoming more so. The vast majority of high school graduates who matriculate this fall will be attending community colleges and branches of the State U., living at home, and working between 20 and 40 hours a week to pay their expenses. I suspect this has always been a bigger part of the story than the middle class bildungsroman tells. A few years ago, I read a memoir by a working-class gay man from the Left Coast. One of the things he wrote about was applying and being admitted to one of California’s then-stellar and inexpensive research universities without speaking to anyone in his family about it at all. The night he packed his ramshackle car, terrified that they would do something to prevent it, he told his parents he was leaving for college. To this man’s great relief, and sorrow, no one in his family appeared to care about his departure at all. (“Wow,” said a friend with a Ph.D. and a good teaching job, who also attended California schools, when I told her this story; “That’s what happened to me too.”)
Hence, we might ask, are generalizations about “parents,” and how they behave when separating from their children, valid at all if they do not take into account the large number of generationally similar people who have a very different experience? We might ask: has “going away” to college ever been the typical, or even the most desirable, experience? We also might ask, given that tuition and fees alone at a residential college averages, according to the College Board, $7,020 (public in-state) $18,578 (public out-of-state) and a whopping $26,273 (private), whether there isn’t an awful lot at stake for parents. I’m not just talking about the money: I’m thinking about the saving, the sacrifices, and the second mortgages parents are asked to take out to finance an education; the corollary investment in making the right choice, one that is not going to result in a year that has to be repeated because of getting off on the wrong foot; and the years of intangible investment in the teenager’s readiness to attend college in the first place.
We have too little knowledge about what the high cost of college is really “costing” those who undertake it. Furthermore, why do we assume that the four-year residential college experience is the norm, when it no longer is — and perhaps never has been? According to Department of Education statistics released in 2008 (see the summary report with reported data here) out of the 16.4 million students enrolled at four year post-secondary institutions that year, 12.6 million were enrolled in public institutions, 2 million of whom were enrolled part-time. Of the remainder, 3.4 million were enrolled in non-profit private schools and 1.6 million were enrolled in private for-profit institutions (an increase of 1.2 million students, reflecting the privatization agenda that was enabled, albeit poorly and at great cost to the taxpayers, under the Bush administration.) The student demographic that is growing fastest is students matriculating at community or junior colleges: in 2007, seven million students attended two-year institutions, and over half of those students were enrolled part-time, so we can safely assume that they too were working.
This is only to emphasize that, while the number of students attending four-year private schools is a healthy 3.4 million, it is at least equalled by those students who are working, attending classes at a local school part-time or on-line, and probably living at home. When you then add the number of students who are working and going to school full time; going to public or private schools and living at home; and attending non-residential for-profits, in fact the parental departure scenes depicted in the Times are suffered by relatively few students.
Hypothesis? The vast majority of students working towards a B.A., while they may be living at home, may be separating from their parents just fine, thank you. Research, please.
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