don't want to meet the parents
The growing infantilisation of campus life is not doing
students or lecturers any favours
In 1997, I completed my book The Culture of Fear. Most
of the comments my copy editor made about the manuscript were routine
questions about grammar, incoherent formulations and inconsistencies.
But one of the comments stood out as an explicit challenge to the
authenticity of the text. The contentious passage informed the reader
of a relatively new development - the arrival of parents on campus.
To illustrate the changing character of university life, I pointed
to what was then a relatively novel phenomenon: students arriving
on campus for their interviews, accompanied by their parents. "This
cannot be true," exclaimed my editor.
At first, I was taken aback by her implicit challenge to my integrity.
But after we had discussed this issue, I was able to understand
where she was coming from. As someone who was an undergraduate in
the 1970s, she could not reconcile her experience of a parent-free
university with the subsequent changes. Although her accusation
was, strictly speaking, wrong, what it indicated was great sensitivity
to the process of change.
A number of colleagues agreed with the facts as I presented them
but claimed that I was in danger of exaggerating the trend. They
said it was unlikely that the presence of parents on campus could
expand and that there would probably be a backlash from students,
who would soon be fed up with this encroachment on their independence
from busybody adults.
That was eight years ago. Since then, parental intervention in
higher education has grown, and no one would now argue that it represents
a marginal or transitional phenomenon. On the contrary, anyone who
raises concerns about this infantilisation of campus life is likely
to be accused of insensitivity towards the "conscientious parent".
In practice, many educators now regard undergraduates as biologically
mature schoolchildren and welcome the positive support that parents
can provide to university students.
Academics, like other normal human beings, sometimes suffer from
social amnesia. Sometimes it is difficult to recall that the way
things are today is not necessarily the best way of organising the
Unfortunately, those who suffer from social amnesia are also afflicted
by a powerful commitment to the present. Presentism in higher education
means that anything to do with the experience of the past is represented
as an inferior version of the status quo. And the slightest hint
that some aspects of university life were superior to those of today
is dismissed as nostalgia for a mythical golden age. This Panglossian
perspective cannot accommodate a world in which students take themselves
so seriously that they believe they should be treated like adults.
Yet it is worth recalling that the protests of the 1960s led to
the formulation of a new attitude towards the status of university
These students were regarded as adult participants in an academic
community who were capable of making choices about their lives and
of being held responsible for the consequences. This expression
of an aspiration to take control of life represented a positive
Sadly, our conformist campus culture has become inhospitable to
this sentiment. We can pretend that this is not a big deal, accept
a new role as schoolteachers with PhDs and look forward to the first
university parent-teacher association. I would rather we gently
explain to parents that they do their offspring no favours by intervening
in their university education.
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement,
29 July 2005