Do College Students Need a Class In Dating?

Dating Tips for Undergrads?

Here’s a link to some coverage of my Aspen Ideas Festival panel on the emotional health of college students. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Yale should become a dating service! (Nor did I say, nor do I think, that there should be credit-granting “relationship classes.”) But let’s recognize at least that there is no zero sum tradeoff between emotional intimacy and intelligence, and that college can be a laboratory for both emotional and academic development. Young adults who deliberately miss out on serious relationships, either by design or default, as is the pattern these days, are foregoing one of the best ways to protect against the setbacks and injuries of everyday life. What happened to romance, our panel asked? Why is a committed relationship viewed, increasingly, as a luxury or a waste of time at a life stage when students feel they might be better off building their resumes and taking care of themselves? My wonderful co-panelists, Lori Gottlieb and Rachel Greenwald, and I all approached this from slightly different angles – Lori is a therapist, best selling author and editor; Rachel is a relationship coach and also best-selling author) – but we all agreed that a healthy emotional life, which necessarily includes relationships (romantic and platonic) is completely compatible with, and even essential to, a college education.

Many people think an emphasis on relationship skills is too “vocational” a goal for an academic institution, and that intimacy is at best irrelevant to the mission of a great academic institution. (Nice people certainly don’t have a monopoly on genius.) But I think the skills that make loving relationships flourish happen to be the exact same skills that students need to learn to be successful in demanding academic and professional contexts.

Skills needed to get good grades, find a job, and fall in love:

  • the ability to listen
  • to assume the perspective of other people
  • to compromise
  • to think creatively and sometimes non-linearly
  • to tolerate disappointment and failure
  • to learn from mistakes
  • to see the best in others
  • to be generous
  • to be brave.
  • to take the long view of life
  • to be on time (Sorry, just had to throw that one in there… I’m middle aged.)

These skills enhance, rather than limit, a person’s academic experience in college, as anyone who has watched a class monopolized by a clueless oaf or tried to learn a language on Rosetta Stone will attest. We are social beings, and we learn from one another. Sadly, people equate words like “emotional health” with a certain squishiness assumed to be incompatible with academic vigor. (We see this same false dichotomy between social-emotional learning and academic learning at the early elementary level, where Kindergarten has become a desultory skills factory, rather than a fertile ground for inquiry and exploration.) We all need to push back on these ridiculous dichotomies.

In yesterday’s panel, I argued that the value of the American University lies in its human capital and that, contrary to popular opinion about the encroachment of online learning and other forms of technology, colleges will continue to hold enormous appeal in the face of cheaper alternatives, if, but only if, they can continue to engage students deeply in authentic, face to face communication about important ideas. We just can’t outsource those authentic interactions. Research shows how essential real, not ersatz, communication is for the most basic human endeavors. (Babies who watch TV don’t acquire language; you have to communicate face to face with real humans!)

But the open and often challenging discourse we generally associate with university life is under threat by forces we should fear a hell of a lot more than the potential market reach of an online degree factory or another satellite campus opening up in Singapore.

The real threat to the intellectual and emotional health of universities is, in my view, the threat to free speech. If you haven’t spent time on a college campus in recent years, you may not realize just how stultifying and anti-intellectual much of the discourse has become. It might come as a shock to discover how deeply afraid students, administrators, and even professors are of free speech. So-called “trigger warnings” (the warnings inserted in lectures and homework assignments that caution students when something potentially offensive might be coming) and excessive attention to “micro aggressions” (the small, unintended slights that can appear, but are not meant to be, bigoted) can create an atmosphere of paranoia where people can’t speak their minds without fear of offending someone and running afoul of campus policies. I never thought I would write those words. As a proud left-of-centerish person, I used to mock conservatives who screamed “political correctness” every time a white male was shaken a little off his pedestal. But what’s happened in the American academy is simply perverse. Students and faculty are beginning to lose their minds and plug their ears when they hear anything that doesn’t fit their established world-view.

I wrote about my experience with Harvard’s spineless free speech hysteria here. The director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Greg Loukianoff, has written about the loss of free speech in his book, Unlearned Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate here.

Am I off topic, equating free speech with emotional health? I don’t think so! In an era where anyone with an internet connection can download TED talks and Kahn academy videos, the only real value added to being at college comes from the opportunity to engage, and, yes, struggle with the thoughts and feelings of other people, even when it makes us uncomfortable. This deep engagement will enhance the learning experience of young people and, who knows, it might even land them a better chance at what was once quaintly called falling in love.

 

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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1 Response to Do College Students Need a Class In Dating?

  1. Peter says:

    “Why is a committed relationship viewed, increasingly, as a luxury or a waste of time at a life stage when students feel they might be better off building their resumes and taking care of themselves?”

    Well, for starters, if you’re in a hyper-competitive school or work outside of class, dating may not fit into the schedule. I barely had time for my grandmother’s funeral when I was at a technical school. And my two year college relationship ended soon after I graduated and moved to my ex’s city.

    Second, if you lack confidence, have anxiety, or are socially awkward and fail at your attempts to get a date, (after being called creepy or whatever other names are thrown at you) you probably still don’t have time to put in the hours necessary to understand what it takes to have a successful relationship. You need to change your personality and appearance, and stand out from the competition. If you’re wire-thin, you may need to work out. If you’re overweight, you need to understand how to lose weight, and that’s hard because everyone’s body is different. And if you’re desperate for a relationship, that’s a total turnoff–nobody will date you.

    As someone who’s been out of college for a while, I’ve had these experiences in the last couple weeks alone:
    -After flirting with someone for several hours, including her kissing my neck and having me play with her hair, a woman said asking her out was the, “Worst thing I could have possibly said.”
    -Another woman I connected with on a dating website, said she couldn’t date me because she wasn’t ready for a relationship. Then why send me flirtatious pictures and talk about things like having sex under the stars?
    -Someone I’ve known my entire life said to me yesterday I can’t get a woman because I’m a pussy. I would’ve been more comfortable if he had stabbed me in the back. I can’t even say he’s wrong, because I’ve been trying to get a girlfriend for years and have failed.

    The divorce rate is over 50%, so any relationship fostered is likely to end at some point anyway, and we all know divorce isn’t cheap. I see most married couples that have stayed together, and they’re unhappy. Given Ms Gottlieb’s book (which I’ve read) indicates that many women will drop a guy for ridiculous reasons…well, honestly, I can’t imagine why any college student SHOULD take dating seriously. I’d advise them to focus on career-oriented relationships, eat healthy, and to make sure they get plenty of sleep.

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