Why I hate the “freshman dorm”

The older I get, the more I appreciate God’s emphasis on mentoring.  Life is far too complicated to be “taught” like a classroom subject. Sure, “tests” appear pretty frequently from our Master Teacher but clearly the people older than I are supposed to be my “study buddies.”

Many skills-based careers still depend on the master/apprentice relationship. Carpenters, electricians, and machinists (among others) even still use those medieval terms: journeyman, master.

I recently read that tattoo artists learn their complex trade by apprenticing themselves to a master artist who takes full responsibility for the younger’s training and development as an artist. When the apprentice has exhausted his master’s knowledge and skills, he moves on, perhaps to found his own shop.

Artists and musicians are part of a centuries-old system of mentorship. Professional trade the names of their teacher like Olympic medals or badges of approval. “Well, I got to take a master class with so-no-so before he died.”  “Ooooh! Really? Wow!” *eyes open* Even musicians trained outside the traditional system proudly acknowledge sessions spent doodling or jamming informally with the musicians they most admire. “I learned those sweeps from Paul! He was chillin at my buddy’s house before a show so we hung out….”

For most disciplines, a “good education” must be mediated through someone else’s guidance and experience.  Wise students attend colleges where a well-trained faculty invest themselves in training students well and directing their entrance into the discipline. So it is with life.

If I went to college thinking I would get answers to my deep questions, I was disappointed…. I didn’t.  I only got more questions. Ditto with master’s degree #1.  Masters #2 *did* provide a wealth of foundational material for my thinking, but I think that had as much to do with my being older the second time around as it did with any particular course content.  Education is never about the content….

Let’s be honest:  Life is tough. We all need each other — isolation is deadly — but we need these people ahead of us on the journey even more. We need these storehouses of experience to open themselves up for us to rummage around and find what we need as we need it. And it’s not just the “big questions” of life that fall under Paul’s injunction that”the older teach the younger” — think of what humanity would lose if Southern women stopped teaching their daughters how to make fluffy biscuits and sweet tea! 

Several of my former students and friends just moved thousands of pounds of STUFF into their dorm rooms at college. An overwhelming number of them now live on entire halls or buildings crammed with hundreds of freshmen controlled by a scattering of RA’s (who are nearly as inexperienced at life and the universe and everything).

Doesn’t the very concept of “the freshman dorm” cut the legs out from under God’s vital process of life-mentoring? 

Sure, college classes provide plenty of intellectual discipleship into a professor’s underlying worldview … but dumping all the newbies into one building to muck along on their own as best they can (aside from the “freshman life seminars”) suggests we don’t really care much about our freshmen …. or deem them capable of much more their first year besides public drunkenness and a need to be sequestered from the quieter, calmer, older student population who find freshmen too irritating to keep close by.

I critique BJU a lot, but I deeply appreciate now the way they nestled the freshmen into already-existing communities of older students. Every room contained a jr/sr, a sophomore, and a freshman (usually). Having those older, wiser people around me in abundance made a whale’s difference in my freshman year — though I recognize that only now. The University purposefully created ‘spaces’ in the student organizations where freshmen became woven into the fabric of university life instead of being left to clump together in one lump of inexperience. Looking back, I can’t remember the names of all the upperclassmen girls who reached out to me in my first months at college, but I can’t tell you how much their stability and wisdom protected me from a lot of stupidity and mistakes. (And loneliness.)

Unintentionally, NCS ended up following a similar pathway as we designed the high school.  I noticed my first year there that the 8th graders become so much more mature by hanging out with high school kids all the time. We have seen the older kids take an intentional role in raising up younger students who know how to act right; who treat their classmates with patience; who treat a lady with respect; who learn what to do at a formal dance. We’d drive those relationships all the way down into the elementary school if we could.  It’s so good.

Almost by definition, young adults lack the experience they need to actually “make it” in adult life. Dropping all the young’uns into a single building where they can be managed, controlled, and kept away from the mainstream population robs them of so much that ought to be part of a college kid’s dorm experience!  You don’t learn wisdom and life skills from classroom lectures; it comes as someone older than you teaches wisdom “when you’re lying down, and when you rise up; in your goings-out and comings-in; as you walk along and when you eat” (so says Deuteronomy 6, more or less).

Isolation from older, wiser adults is a systemic flaw in the American college system.

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