First a confession: I am not a sociologist, a behavioral economist nor a social scientist. I am a psychiatrist who has spent the last 25 years as a clinician, administrator and consultant in colleges and higher education settings. Thus, my comments should be taken as speculation and hopefully, a stimulus for further conversation.
Frank Bruni has recently published several excellent essays timed to correspond to the release of his book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be. In these essays, Bruni discusses the increasing competitiveness in the college admissions process and the noxious impact this has had on young applicants and their families. I agree with him that high schools, colleges, the test prep industry among others, have fed this competition partly fueled by a desire to improve their prestige and U.S. News rankings. Bruni briefly mentions the impact of income inequality on this phenomenon. I believe that the growing income inequality (and from a psychological perspective the perception of income inequality) in American society over the past decades has had a profound impact on our national and individual psyches. I think we are seeing this play out in both the college admissions frenzy and in the recent spate of racist, sexist and aggressive behavior in fraternities in the past several years.
Let me explain.
What might happen psychologically to a society when income inequality increases? To start, by definition as income inequality grows there is an increasing gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots"; the "winners" and the "losers" or as we have heard in recent election campaigns, between the "moochers" and the "wealth makers." As this divide becomes more stark and difficult to bridge, it would seem likely that there is erosion in the sense of connectedness with others unlike oneself. Communities become either more homogenous or more disconnected. The winners and losers are necessarily separate and distinct from each other. Class and group identities would harden under these conditions. We will empathize less and care less about those not part of our group.
But the great social anthropologist Ernest Becker taught us, in his classic works, The Denial of Death, and the follow up volume, Escape from Evil, that we are all, no matter how wealthy or powerful, faced with our human limitations (ultimately, we are all mortal) and as a result are inevitably led to a deep existential anxiety or dread. And one of the ways we may manage this anxiety is by reassuring ourselves that we are indeed "winners" or heroes (psychologically immortal). And we can do that by showing others to be losers and that we (the winners) are completely apart and better than they (the losers) are. This often involves showing we have power over them as well.
What does any of this have to do with college admissions or frats?
When my generation applied to college, there was still a stable and vibrant middle class. I and most of the people I knew felt pretty confident that no matter where we went to college, there was a strong likelihood that we would graduate (school was not nearly so expensive) and be able to either get a job or go on for more education. In either case, we felt confident that we would be able to work and earn enough to support ourselves and a family in a decent manner. But this sense of a comfortable middle class feels way less certain now. There are the winners and losers and a growing gap in between. If you do not get into a "winner" school, your future is crippled at the very least. So this real practical concern over future job prospects and the existential dread of not being a winner/hero have combined to make the college admission's process feel like a truly cosmic event for many young people and their families. Winners take all and for the others, too bad.
Frats behaving badly.
I think we can better understand some of the recent spate of crude and aggressive behavior among fraternity members through this prism of the psychological impact of income inequality. If I feel like a "winner", why should I care a whit about the losers (who include anyone not in my group)? But beyond this, my anxiety about the potential of slipping from this group makes it more likely that I will behave aggressively toward non-group members. How better to prove that they are not me and that I am more powerful than to push them around or demean them? If I can have power over them, I am safe from existential threat.
Let me be clear: This argument is in no way meant to excuse or suggest that we should tolerate this bad or aggressive behavior. It is meant to suggest that there are social forces that make this more likely among certain members of a group. It may also help us to consider how to address, limit and hopefully eventually prevent it.
Higher Ed "leadership mania."
I've been troubled in the past 15 years or so as colleges have become more and more preoccupied with admitting young people who are "leaders" and providing training and seminars directed at "leadership." As students apply, they must describe how they have been leaders and why they should be leaders. Then we train them to be leaders while in college. How can we have an entering class and communities with only leaders?
And what is so great about being a leader? Why are we not looking for people who are interested in participating, cooperating, working together? In fact, research has shown that businesses do better when there are more team members focused on teamwork, rather than on their own advancement (or leadership) alone .
So we have socialized-both purposely and inadvertently-many of our young people to be hyper-competitive, to feel entitled, needlessly powerful and important (you must be a "leader"), disconnected from others and at the same time uncertain and anxious.
What can we do?
We need to recognize that we are not doing our children a favor by encouraging the relentless pursuit of the top brand and the hyper-competition that comes with it. Education, growth and development are not a search for trophies. Growing up is meant to help us learn about the world, learn about people and relationships, explore, and even make mistakes. We do this through our family and school experience, through being in groups, clubs, playing sports and music, doing projects, playing games and having time to think and try out different things. We need to let kids be kids for a while.
And again to be clear, I'm not making an argument for mediocrity. I am making an argument for flexibility, exploration, cooperation and working hard at learning. Everyone should try to reach their potential as best they can; everyone cannot and should not be a "leader". In fact, many people most desirous of leadership are least psychologically poised to lead effectively (as should be evident from the discussion above).
As Bruni has explained, where you go to college does not matter nearly so much as we think. How you learn to be a thoughtful, responsible and hopefully kind person and how you learn to relate to and work with others as a good friend, colleague, partner, spouse, parent and yes, sometimes as a leader will matter much more as you live your life.