I am master of Branford College at Yale. I live on the campus and know the students well. (We have 485 of them.) I listen to their hopes and fears -- and also to their stereo music and their piercing cries in the dead of night ("Does anybody care?"). They come to me to ask how to get through the rest of their lives. Mainly I try to remind them that the road ahead is a long one and that it will have more unexpected turns than they think. There will be plenty of time to change jobs, change careers, change whole attitudes and approaches. They don't want to hear such news. They want a map -- right now -- that they can follow directly to career security, financial security, social security and, presumably, a prepaid grave. What I wish for all students is some release from the grim grip of the future. I wish them a chance to enjoy each segment of their education as an experience in itself and not as a tiresome requirement in preparation for the next step. I wish them the right to experiment, to trip and fall, to learn that defeat is as educational as victory and is not the end of the world. My wish, of course, is naive. One of the few rights that America does not proclaim is the right to fail. Achievement is the national god, worshipped in our media -- the million-dollar athlete, the wealthy executive -- and glorified in our praise of possessions. In the presence of such a potent state religion, the young are growing up old. I see four kinds of pressure working on college students today: economic pressure, parental pressure, peer pressure, and self-induced pressure. It's easy to look around for bad guys -- to blame the colleges for charging too much money, the professors for assigning too much work, the parents for pushing their children too far, the students for driving themselves too hard. But there are no bad guys, only victims. Today it is not unusual for a student, even one who works part time at college and full time during the summer, to have accumulated $5,000 in loans after four years -- loans that the student must start to repay within one year after graduation (and incidentally, not all these loans are low-interest, as many non-students believe). Encouraged at the commencement ceremony to go forth into the world, students are already behind as they go forth. How can they not feel under pressure throughout college to prepare for this day of reckoning? Women at Yale are under even more pressure than men to justify their expensive education to themselves, their parents, and society. For although they leave college superbly equipped to bring fresh leadership to traditionally male jobs, society hasn't yet caught up with this fact. Along with economic pressure goes parental pressure. Inevitably, the two are deeply intertwined. I see students taking premedical courses with joyless determination. They go off to their labs as if they were going to the dentist. It saddens me because I know them in other corners of their life as cheerful people. "Do you want to go to medical school?" I ask them.
"I guess so," they say, without conviction, or, "Not really." "Then why are you going?"
"My parents want me to be a doctor. They're paying all this money and ..." Peer pressure and self-induced pressure are also...