“Tom looked like a bum when he came home for Christmas. His clothes were filthy, he was wearing a mandarin beard and his hair hadn’t been cut since September.”
The above title and paragraph are quoted from an article from Harper’s magazine, written by J. Glenn Gray. Mr. Gray is a professor at Colorado College and in his article discusses the searching of college students for the purpose of their existence.
The story of Tom is a familiar tale in newspapers, articles, and magazine about groups of students in various parts of the country and on several campuses of American colleges and universities. Tom and those like him are superior students who have hitherto seemed anything but beatniks. For years their parents have let them steer their own courses and supported them financially at some sacrifice. What, then, are they rebelling against? Is this merely a ludicrous episode in their development or a sign of severe disorder? Their parents don’t know.
Nor can professors and university administrators shed much light o the moods and motivations of students in the sixties. They have been baffled by the rioting at Berkeley last fall and other less publicized incidents elsewhere.
If a Tom had come home for Christmas 25 years ago in the same condition, his parents probably would have committed him to a different sort of institution. What lies behind this change?
For one thing, today’s student is more affluent, more comfortably housed, and better equipped with the materials of scholarship than he was 25 years ago. But his college life is also more impersonal and competitive, and less humane. It is harder for him to know his professors, the administration, or even his all too numerous fellow students. The student of today has become one of the crowd.
If he has reached the age of reflection, today’s student is seeking above all to differentiate himself from the crowd. Twenty-five years ago it was distinctive merely to be a college man. Now he must struggle to be more than a grade-point average, an anonymous statistic with a college and home address. Often he expresses this yearning for uniqueness in ways that parents, administrators, professors, and other outsiders consider illegitimate. Well publicized are the bearded, sloppily dressed students, defiant of even minimal administrative regulations, studious enough, but incontinent in their demands for alcoholic and sexual freedoms, fiercely insistent on leading their own lives.
The desire for self-definition goes hand in hand with an inner need for a compelling authority to make freedom meaningful. In the thirties, economic pressures for existence rescued from this dilemma. In the forties there was the war, and afterward, the threat of the Bomb to distract attention from inner conflicts. For some students in the sixties the civil-rights struggle has become a Cause, but has not reached the impact of the thirties or forties.
Lacking an embracing cause and a fervent ideology, the student’s search for a durable purpose is likely to become aggressive, extremist, at times despairing. Paradoxical as it sounds, the real problem of the college youth is to discover some authority, both private and public, that will make possible authentic individuality.
How then do these students of today seek their so called “salvation”? They have resorted to what is known as Existentialism. The Existentialist says, since God does not exist, there is no purpose, logic, or plan in the universe. There is no essential human nature common to man. Thus each individual creates his own essence or character in time by his own choice of interests and actions.
In colleges all over America, courses dealing with Existentialism are currently very popular. Thousands of paperbacks on Existentialism are being sold from the newsstand. Numerous books are being translated from German and French Existentialists.
Why this sudden emphasis? Simply because Existentialism appeals to the situation. Its deepest conviction is that through his choices each individual makes himself. According to this metaphysical concept everyone determines his own course. He can choose to be lost in the crowd. Existentialists are against group activities. To them “existence” literally means to “stand out from.”
Even the so called worldly men of today doubt that Existentialism can ultimately satisfy the search for authority. The professors of the leading universities today claim that we must find a way to help these poor lost souls who are trying so hard to discover and know themselves. The world is changing too fast they say and because of this incredible pace, it is a wonder that so many are sane and resilient.
So the modern professors send out a plea to all mankind—a plea for help. Experienced professors must provide patient listening and attention to these students who are tomorrow’s citizens. Because professors are busy with research, government contracts, and sabbatical travel, there has developed a rift between the generations and at the same time increases the sense of impersonality, discontinuity, and absence of community that makes college life less satisfying than it used to be.
Nowadays nearly everyone looks to education for salvation as once they looked to religion or to a political ideology. To succeed in building the great society one must first resolve the doubt and bafflement about the validity and worth of that society and its existence.
Many of the harassed young men and women at schools today have not yet decided what sense, if any, their existence has.
It is not difficult for the Christian to see the wicked errors in not only the plight of the poor student of the world but also in the remedy put forth by students and professors. In this we see another sign of the times for which we are commanded to watch and be not deceived.
The worldly man vainly seeks to find his answer here below. If is good that we may know that no answer or satisfaction can ever be found aside from God. We do not need to find a way out of a dilemma. We belong to God and thus all satisfaction and peace are in Him.
But there is more of a lesson to us than merely recognizing that the wicked hate God. As the wicked young person denies a decreed purpose for his existence, we sometimes too forget that God decrees and controls the lives of each of His creatures. We only too often want to help God a little bit by adding some of our own works to faith. Or we often pray for God’s will to eb done and under our breath whisper our own wants and wills. Or we often complain because things don’t seem to be going our way.
Only through faith can we recognize not only the workers of iniquity but we can only then recognize our own weakness and sin.
But we know too that our sins are forgiven us in Christ Jesus and then we may prayerfully sing:
Ere into being I was brought
Thy eye did see, and in Thy thought
My life in all its perfect plan
Was ordered ere my days began.
Search me, O God, my heart discern,
Try me, my inmost thoughts to learn;
And lead me if in sin I stray,
To choose the everlasting way.