The Magazine

Making It

Love and success at America's finest universities.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By DAVID BROOKS
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There are far more women than men enrolled in America's colleges. In 1997, women earned 25 percent more bachelor's degrees and 33 percent more master's degrees than men, and that gap widens every year. In general the women carry themselves with an appearance of ease that must have been matched only by that of the old WASP bluebloods when these schools were oriented around their desires. Twenty years ago, if memory serves, it was mostly us men who performed the role of seminar baboons--speaking up and showing off our knowledge, just as today it is mostly men who fill the op-ed pages with ideas and pontifications.

But in my discussions with student groups there were always several women who projected authority with a grace that was almost jaw-dropping. These women--who were born around 1982 remember--appeared uninhibited by any notion that they shouldn't assert themselves for fear of appearing unfeminine or that they should overexert themselves to prove their feminist bona fides. Those considerations appeared irrelevant to their lives. Of course everybody suffers from the normal insecurities. In conversation I learned that some of the women are more intimidated by their surroundings than they let on--like men. But in general, these women carry themselves with a wonderfully straightforward assurance, which suggests that despite all the madnesses and excesses of the feminists over the past few decades, we may have completed this social transformation pretty successfully.

The changing character of the women was bound to change courtship rituals. One night at dinner a student from the South mentioned that at her state university, where some of her friends go, they still have date nights on Friday nights. The men ask the women out and they go as couples. The other students at the dinner table were amazed. For many young people these days, the only time they've ever gone out on a formal date was their high school senior prom. You might as well have told them that in some parts of the country there are knights on horseback jousting with lances.

One of the young men at the dinner table piped up and said that his generation just happened to come along during a time of transition. A generation ago, there was one set of courtship rituals. Twenty years from now, he continued, there will be another. But now there are no set rules. There is ambiguity. Ambiguity and fluidity are indeed the key traits of the current social scene. A literature professor told me that he had come to notice a strange pattern among his students. Many of the 19th-century novels he teaches, he said, end with the heroine leaving her family and friends and going off to marry her one true love. Recently, he continued, he had found his students rebelling against that choice. To them, it didn't make sense to sacrifice your relationship with your friends to build a marriage relationship. After all, to them the friendship relationship is higher, more intimate, and more satisfying than the sexual or even romantic relationship. Friendships are forever, whereas just look at romances . . . they break apart. As one student put it, in a phrase I heard a few times, "Bro's before ho's."

Now it should be said that these students are idealizing friendships. Every longitudinal study of young people shows that Americans between 16 and 22 build and abandon intimate friendships with astounding speed. The people one is close to freshman year are probably not the people one is close to junior year. And yet it is that ideal--the happy, flexible clique with an undertone of sexual tension (just like on "Friends")--that does seem to beckon as the preferred social bond. This is an amazing inversion of decades-old, if not centuries-old, social norms.

The literature professor continued that his students think they are making life easier for themselves by having these loose, informal bonds. After all, with these arrangements, the girl doesn't have to sit by the phone waiting to be asked out. There is no nervousness about when to start going steady. There are fewer traumatic breakup scenes. But on the other hand, the professor noted, nobody really knows where they stand. Relationships are just abandoned without any formal breakup, sometimes without a fight or even a word. I heard about a few relationships in which the guy thought he was going out with the girl, but the girl had an entirely different understanding of their relationship. The ambiguity allowed them to interpret their friendship (or love affair) in contradictory ways, with trouble looming down the road. The literature professor concluded that, on balance, the fluidity and ambiguity of the students' social lives leads to greater misery.