The Magazine

Making It

Love and success at America's finest universities.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By DAVID BROOKS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I'VE SPENT A LOT OF TIME on elite college campuses recently--at Yale, where I taught a course, as well as at Princeton, Dartmouth, Kenyon, and a few less rarefied schools--and while I've temporarily given up on the game of trying to diagnose the ills of America's youth, I have found that things really are different than they were when I graduated about 20 years ago.

For one thing, the students in the competitive colleges are products of an almost crystalline meritocracy. They grew up from birth being shepherded from one skill-enhancing activity to another. When you read their résumés, you learn that they got straight A's in high school and stratospheric board scores. They've usually started a few companies, cured at least three formerly fatal diseases, mastered a half dozen or so languages, and marched for breast cancer awareness through Tibet while tutoring the locals on conflict resolution skills and environmental awareness.

Their main lack is time. Students boast to each other about how little sleep they've gotten, and how long it's been since they had a chance to get back to their dorm room. Often they will tell you they have no time for serious dating. They are more likely to go out in groups--the group has replaced the couple as the primary social unit. And then, of course, they sometimes hook up for sex. I'd heard about all this, but I've been struck by how many young women will come up to me--a journalist who has been known to write about such things--after a speech and say something like "I don't have time for a relationship, so of course I hook up." They do so in the tone one might use to describe commuting routes.

Nor did I really understand how students got from the group-gathering stage to the intimate Hook Up stage. It turns out there's an intermediate phase called the Hang Out, as in "Do you want to come hang out in my room?" The Hang Out begins with the two students ensconced in a dorm room, engaged in stilted conversation about some pseudo-intellectual topic. It then proceeds through a series of ever less cerebral conversational stages, which may last over a few Hang Out sessions, until the two are in bed. There are thus many different kinds of Hang Outs, and friends will ask each other, "Yeah, but what kind of Hang Out was it?" Similarly, there are many different kinds of Hook Ups, with infinite and ill-defined gradations of seriousness.

This is the point at which us fogies are supposed to lament the decline in courtship. Indeed, I was out drinking late one night with a group of students, and a woman to my left mentioned that she would never have a serious relationship with someone she wouldn't consider marrying. "That sounds traditional," I said to her. She responded, "I didn't say I wouldn't f--- anyone I wouldn't consider marrying."

One young man from a small farm town on the other side of me heard the exchange and for the next few minutes I could see him brooding. Finally he let forth with a little tirade on how the women on his campus had destroyed romance by making it so transactional. He didn't quite call the woman and her friends sluts, but he was heading in that direction. As he spoke, I could feel the three women on my left shaking with rage, making little growls of protest but politely not interrupting him. I knew they were only waiting to explode. Eventually they let him have it. They didn't deny his version of reality, that sex is sometimes transactional. Their main point was that guys have been acting this way all along, so why shouldn't they.

As we left the bar the young man from the farm town walked me part of the way to my hotel, and commented that the girl who'd made the comment was really cute. He thought he might give her a call.

Now the first thing to be said about this state of affairs is that every recent survey of youth sexual activity I've seen over the past several years reveals that young people are having less sex than their predecessors were 10 and 20 years ago. Young women may talk more baldly about sex, but it is simply not true that they are more promiscuous or casual about it.

Instead, their conversational style is a reflection of the amazing self-confidence of the women on these campuses. The single most striking--if hard to define--difference between college campuses today and college campuses 20 years ago is in the nature and character of the female students. They are not only self-confident socially. They are self-confident academically, athletically, organizationally, and in every other way.