Two, Three, Many Charlotte Simmonses

In a few weeks, millions of idealistic and enthusiastic teenagers will embark on or continue a time-honored and familiar American ritual: losing their religion. Granted, the rest of us don’t usually put the passage in such blunt terms. We commonly call it “going off to college.” But the facts whistle past our euphemisms.

It is true that American colleges and universities remain the envy of the world, true too that many American students will find in academia a happiness and satisfaction known nowhere else. But many, even at religious colleges, will also find the campus to be a graveyard for their morals and faith – one whose internment there will leave permanent scars, even if the owner does manage to exhume it some years or perhaps decades later. Many others, of course, will not.

Why do so many students “lose their faith,” as the going polite phrase has it, when they hit the quad? The common answer today is the secularist one: because college is where young adults learn to reject their foolish childhood ways, religion most emphatically.

Like many other exercises in self-deception, of course, this one gets the actual causality of the thing perfectly backward. Most college students do not ditch God after giving Him a good long mature think, only later to realize – mirabile dictu! – that doing so will free them up for some pretty exciting things. No, like any other people who have no problem with faith until it gets in the way of something they really, really want, most students typically run that sequence in reverse: wanting those pretty exciting things, which are available in spades on most campuses today, they go for them by first jettisoning God.

It is important to get these facts of the matter straight, I think, because many of us who are supposed to be the adults in charge today have particular reasons for wanting to deny them. Consider, for example, the provocative fact that Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece I am Charlotte Simmons – by far the most searing and true meditation out there on contemporary campus decadence – fell both critically and commercially short of the two novels preceding it. Why? Surely not for want of literary merit; the same technical brilliance, uncanny ear, and moral fearlessness are displayed there as in Wolfe’s better-received Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.

No, the same public that devoured Wolfe’s other novels resisted Charlotte for another reason: because middle-aged readers, many of them parents, found the book’s truth-telling about what their daughters and sons on campus are really up to simply unbearable. They’re not alone. “Every Saturday night,” confided a friend whose daughter was a freshman last year, “I’d think of her and worry about what she might be doing at college – and then I’d purposefully put the whole thing out of my head.” She – and a few million other mothers and fathers, too.

Yet face facts we should, because the nihilism tattooed permanently into some of those students settles not just in classrooms dedicated to the orthodoxies of post-modernism, but in the dorm rooms and common rooms where those teachings get played out up close and personal. Yes, promiscuity and binge drinking on campus are nothing new. Yes, perhaps even the hook-up culture – so critically exposed in Unprotected by campus doctor Miriam Grossman – is arguably just the old one-night stand on steroids. But what is new is that the adults in charge, on campus and off, are so passive about it all – the more so because, unlike the parents of the Baby Boomers, today’s mothers and fathers cannot claim ignorance.

Kids will be kids. Let them have their fun. I was pretty wild then, too. Who am I to say they’re wrong? And so we justify, bit by bit, our sitting this one out on the sidelines. That’s a shame, because campus is one place where much could be done, even by those not there. As Robert George among others has forcefully observed, students need alternatives to the anything-goes sexual gobbledygook – the GLBT centers and indoctrination sessions and prurient workshops in “sexual health,” etc. etc. etc.

Groups active in campus ministry – Newman Centers, local parishes, and the rest – need real help in bringing alternative speakers, publications, and ideas to campus life. As philanthropists big or small, we can also help by sending individual students or traditional-minded groups alternative literature of a different sort, such as gift subscriptions to magazines or books that deliver apologetics without apologizing. Or just send the students you know links to fellow-travelling websites, including this one.

These aren’t just shots in the dark, after all. Plenty of students, too, have misgivings about what for many is a four-year bacchanal bizarrely regarded as sacrosanct. Consider as emblematic this fact: the Anscombe Society, founded years ago at Princeton – Princeton! – has not only thrived on that campus, but inspired groups like it on other campuses too. Today these counter-cultural platoons draw on each other for mutual support (and an annual conference) under the umbrella of the Love and Fidelity network – another outstanding worthy cause, by the way.

These and other forms of student resistance go to show that the moral gig on campus is not up. It’s just underfunded and undermanned compared to the other side. In sum, there are plenty of lifelines to throw students who do not want to become the next Charlotte Simmons. But first we must lose what so many of us, perhaps out of our own self-deception and self-exculpation, seem to have acquired as a stumbling block: the despairing notion, masquerading as worldly wisdom, that Charlotte’s fate is simply inevitable. It isn’t – so let’s not allow our passivity to make it so.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.