College can be a lonely, saddening place. It isn’t at all unusual on a college campus to see a neat, barcoded row of scars slip out from beneath somebody’s shirtsleeve. Antidepressants are perhaps slightly more common than cigarettes and less common than alcohol. The value of random kindness has become clichéd, but I’ve struck up friendships with strangers in the dining hall and learned later that our conversations were the first they’ve had in months.
Universities recognize this loneliness, and tend to take measures to address it. At Trinity, for example, freshman dormitories have resident mentors whose job includes counseling about first-year loneliness. Universities encourage students to attend events and join clubs and try new things—but even in the supposedly vibrant, populated, youthful world of a college town, loneliness seems stronger than ever. The strange phenomenon of urban solitude persists doggedly.
So often, the root of loneliness is the fear of others. More or less, the fear of others is just a personality trait for some people. Social skills are just that: skills. Some have mastered them better than others. Also, social anxiety is very chic among millennials—some of the most gregarious college students I know swear they’re afraid of interpersonal contact. It’s one big generational inside joke. On top of inborn shyness or faux awkwardness, however, universities often foment widespread fear of different people that can only worsen the epidemic of loneliness among the young. They agitate this dread most effectively between men and women.
Like almost all American universities, Trinity pushes an agenda of complete sameness between men and women and often calls it equality. Last year, for example, the Trinity Diversity Connection (TDC) held an infamous lecture entitled “Can Straight Men Eat Ice Cream?” about how the expectations of traditional masculinity (such as strength, thick skin, and apparently, not eating ice cream) harm men. The administration works hard to unmake the image of our fathers and reshape its male students into a more feminine mold of masculinity. In a sense, this feminist approach ultimately strives toward total independence of the genders by removing distinctions.
Overall, we are taught that we do not need each other. We are taught that the natural longing men and women feel for each other is a lie, and that it is harmful to acknowledge men as men and women as women. We show these little acknowledgements by giving up one’s seat or holding open doors, but in a culture that pushes utter sameness, these habits are more easily abandoned—and therein lies the discomfort. We are so culturally confused about what men and women want for each other. Our professors and administrators assure us that true respect means identical treatment, but our instincts tell us otherwise.
So, contact with the other becomes fearful and unsure as instinct wrestles with authority. The efforts to instill a sense of sameness only make the other harder to interact with, because beneath the cold, distant respect lies a dormant dissatisfaction. The human heart shifts and swings, and everybody’s different, so it would be unfair and inaccurate to make blanket statements about how deep down we all really want this or that. Nonetheless, as we interact with each other in this culture, making sure to address all our emails the same way and use first names instead of “sir” or “ma’am”, so many people cannot help but feel that something is missing. Interactions are respectful but somehow inharmonious or incomplete.
Really, men and women have always been a little bit afraid of each other. Every eighth-grade dance in history has begun with the boys and girls congregating on opposite sides of the gym. However, the kind of apprehension that universities foster between the sexes is different, almost opposite. The natural, nervous wonder at a strange and different being has been replaced with a dogmatic insistence that such instincts and expectations of the normal world are wrong. Feminist authorities now insist that men and women have nothing unique to offer each other—really, a stark turn from original feminism—so don’t bother looking for fulfillment beyond yourself. But underneath the reeducation of the university, our natural knowledge burns.