Student accounts vs. accountability

In every area of life, students are drifting toward irresponsibility and an attitude of dependence.
September 25, 2011

Recently, the debate over Rep. Hansen Clarke’s proposal to forgive student loan debt as a means of stimulating the economy has garnered more attention. The thinking goes that with the extra money, students will be able to buy houses, cars and other products rather than be burdened by their loans. Yet, during a period of our lives where we’re meant to be developing skills and abilities along with an appreciation of self-sufficiency, what Clarke’s proposal is absolving us from are not just student loans, but something greater: personal responsibility.

Chances are you encounter a smaller example of a lack of individual responsibility here on campus on a daily basis. You’ve probably noticed the crossing guards on Pleasant and Pillsbury streets by now. Several times a day, crowds of 20-somethings stand on opposite sides of a hardly trafficked street waiting for someone in a highlighter vest to wave them across. There’s a particular irony of an urban design student showing up late to a class in which he learns how to layout streets in a city, yet he can’t be trusted to cross one on his own volition. Having spent the past two summers navigating the streets of Washington, D.C., and New York, it’s a little demeaning that I now need someone’s approval on a two-lane road.

This anecdote appears a minimal threat, and it is; I’m not worried that we’ll devolve into purposeless drones because of a prolonged wait at an intersection. Rather, it is a scenario where the sum is greater than its parts. By dismissing responsibility whenever someone else steps in, we’re conditioning ourselves to grow accustomed to it and expect it.

There is no denying that our generation is facing difficult economic times. The job market is tough, and the value of a college degree diminished. But what’s to say even students themselves will still value a college education if they’re not paying for it anymore? Sure, student bank accounts might be better off, but not student accountability.

This is already happening worldwide. In Italy, a court ordered that a man continue giving his 32-year-old daughter a monthly allowance of 350 euro ($550). Why? Because she’s still “working” on her thesis despite not taking a class in the past eight years and continues to need financial support until she gets her degree. The father mistakenly figured that by the time you’ve lived almost a third of a century and lollygagged for nearly a decade, it’s time to start funding your own livelihood.

This ruling wasn’t a win for the daughter’s academic pursuits, but for her continuous dependency on someone other than herself. “Today, most developed nations have managed to defer adulthood,” Mark Steyn writes in “After America”, “and thus disincentivize parenthood.” He’s right, too; seven out of 10 Italians between 18 and 34 still live with their genitori, or parents. In the U.S., close to half of Americans 25 to 34 live with their folks. We like the idea of the parental role being filled for us. It seems harmless enough at first, if not advantageous, as with the dismissal of student loans, but that conditioning rubs off in other areas. We apply our habits and expectations across a wide spectrum.

The contention that rising tuition and living costs add up for students doesn’t add up logically. These same critics rightly grumble when corporations are bailed out, but then want to continue those same undeserved bailouts. Simply enrolling in school isn’t reason enough to be compensated, otherwise everyone would do it. It’s a risk, and risks are taken in hopes of reward and an acknowledgment of consequence. Holding others accountable forces them to evaluate forthcoming decisions with a cost-benefit analysis, whether it’s money, emotions or their career.

We’re not the first generation that’s expected recompense, but, in the past eight decades, we may be the first to not eventually get it. If that’s the case, it makes little sense to equip ourselves with a mindset of dependency that won’t apply to a future that we’ll inhabit. Encouraging dependence instead of self-reliance in a time when we might need it most would be like teaching someone to use a typewriter orquadricycle, or to do the lindy hop — it’s not going to do you much good anymore. This isn’t meant to be a gloom-and-doom outlook for us, but to compel us to learn to cross the street by ourselves.

“In the long run we are all dead,” said John Maynard Keynes about planning for the future, setting aside any responsibility. It’s a grim attitude that essentially says to just protect your current needs and ignore those of the world to come. How compassionate to upcoming generations. It’s our decision if we want to turn our back on what lies ahead; the thing about the future is that we will have to face it eventually. We might very well wake up one day and realize that Clarke’s proposals, dad’s monthly allowances and the crossing guards aren’t there anymore.

Putting off adulthood is a sign of poor preparation and a failure to take responsibility for yourself. We’re deciding if we want to dawdle a bit more before finally taking care of what we have to do. A time will come when the onus will be entirely on us, where the pressures we put off worrying about come back and the only people we will be able depend on to bail us out will be ourselves. That’s going to be more costly than any remaining student loans.

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