The Nature of College by James Farrell


A few years ago, in a class on college consumer culture, Dr. America’s students taught him the power of silence. I simply asked my students to tell me (anonymously) their deepest values.  Then I asked them for similar lists of the values of college culture, and of American consumer culture.  It turned out that their deepest values differ greatly from the values of their culture(s).  We live, in fact, in a culture that’s hostile to many of our deepest values, and—here’s the hard part—we think that’s normal!

By chance, I also asked students who else knew their deepest values.  For most students, the number of people was very small—usually Mom, sometimes Dad, and then one or two best friends.  I asked why so few people knew, since a better world won’t happen without a lively discussion of the goodness of the good life.  The answer was instructive: we don’t share our deepest values because we’re afraid that people will laugh at us, because we’re afraid our peers will think us weird, because we’d rather be “not too bad” than “too good.”  This is peer pressure at its most powerful—the pressure to keep us silent about what we really care about.  The result is an impoverished discourse of virtue, and a mindset that keeps us from acting out our best intentions.  When our deepest values are private, they have almost no public consequence.  If we don’t speak our values, the culture conforms to somebody else’s—the people who value money more than values, goods more than goodness, sex more than love, fun more than fulfillment, environmental degradation more than sustainability. Politically, for example, we’re governed by the loudmouths on either side.

Here’s the kicker.  All the lists of our deepest values were very similar.  Our peers won’t laugh at us.  They won’t think we’re weird.  We’re not really constrained by actual others.  We’re constrained by the imaginary others in our heads.  This misperception of others is not unique to college students.  In Yearning for Balance Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment, researchers found that most Americans espouse values of responsibility, family life, and friendship, but they don’t think other Americans do.  Most Americans cite religious faith and generosity as guiding values in their lives, but only a few think that other Americans share those values.  We have a broad consensus on values, but we don’t realize it because we don’t talk about them.

The same is true of our values concerning consumption and the environment.  Eighty-two percent of Americans believe that most of us are wasteful, buying and consuming more than we need.  Eighty-six percent of us are concerned for the environment, and 51 percent of Americans believe that their own consumption has a negative effect on the environment.  As a result, 88 percent of us believe that “protecting the environment will require most of us to make major changes in the way we live.”  But we don’t think that other people feel this way. If we ever discussed our deepest values, we might learn that almost all of us espouse values that could lead to an ecological revolution.

Occasionally, of course, other people will mock us for our convictions.  Sometimes our peers will apply pressure to act against our deepest values.  Sometimes peer pressure really is a problem for us.  But the upside of down is that we get to pick our peers. If we hang out with people who are cynical and hopeless, we’ll be affected.  If we pal around with people who are only thinking about getting ahead and getting stuff, we’ll begin to accept that behavior as normal.  But we don’t have to stay with the cynics or the sybarites.  We can find friends who share our deepest values, and who will help us to practice what we preach—and, just as importantly in a culture of silence, preach what we practice.  We can, if we choose, use peer pressure to fuel the ecological revolution of the 21st century.  In Biologic, for example, David Wann suggests that once we get the design right, “our society can be powered by peer pressure alone.”

So it’s time, right now, to silence our silence, and speak up for the values—religious, social, environmental—that we really believe in.