College As a Coming of Age Ritual

I’ve been reading Myths To Live By by Joseph Campbell recently and this section about coming of age rituals stuck out to me today:

“Accordingly, one of the first functions of the puberty rites of primitive societies, and indeed of education everywhere, has been always that of switching the response systems of adolescents from dependency to responsibility — which is no easy transformation to achieve. And with the extension of the period of dependency in our own civilization into the middle or even late twenties, the challenge is today more threatening than ever, and our failures are increasingly apparent.
A neurotic might be defined in this light, as one who has failed to come altogether across the critical threshold of his adult “second birth.” Stimuli that should evoke in him thoughts and acts of responsibility evoke those, instead, of flight to protection, fear of punishment, need for advice, and so on.”

As religious and familial traditions have broken down and adolescence has extended, college (or some vocational schooling) has become the major coming of age ritual in our society. It is a long ritual that for many people marks the transition from adolescent dependency into adult responsibility.

The issue with college is that it sucks as a coming of age ritual. Spending four or five years in extended adolescence and taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt may provide the motivation to take responsibility and reluctantly step into adulthood, but it significantly harms your ability to enjoy your life down the road.

As college students and colleges have figured out that graduation means adulthood, they have slowly shifted from a four year coming of age into a Neverland that fosters old and dependent children.

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