Mature students with purpose and dedication will generally achieve the kind of personal growth so often heralded by study-abroad boosters. Immature students will not, for these programs do not so much build character as reveal it. A foreign country isn’t the place for a childish 20-year-old to grow up, especially when representing an American university. Students and parents, take heed.Now, mistakes will be made, and these mistakes are often the best teachers (and make the best bar stories later). I, too, internationally open, mature-looking, tame, can look back on my own cringe moments. But even if Coclanis' list of sins are popular enough to forgive years later in the community of shared, laughable regret (I mean, who wants to be the guy at a table without a story to share?), there are dangers beyond hangovers and cultural faux pas. Also, the over-consumption and irresponsible use of good things like drink, sex, and technology isn't confined to foreign campuses. We parents can become good teachers before the teachable moments pile up too high.
So, for those of us raising children in a world of inflating choice, this is a chance to return to some thoughts about excellence in pleasure. I'll take two examples: drink and technology.
I had a professor who suggested making the drinking age 16 and the driving age 18 (that's how it is here in Germany, by the way). His logic was, once you try to bike home drunk, you'll never be stupid enough to drink and drive. Well, drunkenness is not famous for logic, and I question whatever definition of progress neighborhoods full of sloshed sophomores on BMXs fulfills, but I think he has a point for a different reason. Wouldn't it make more sense for young people to learn to drink at home: legally and under the watchful care of adults who know what they're doing?
Moreover, what if alcohol appreciation was a required part of 11th grade rather than a rare elective college course for over-21s? What if they understood much earlier the complexities of a good beer or how wine compliments food? What if they learned at an earlier age to view alcoholic beverages (in Chesterton's immortal words) as a drink and nota drug, that limitations enhance enjoyment and addiction can be avoided. America's blossoming beer culture and wine industry are showing the way already, while our kids our exposed to nothing but Bud commercials. (Note: There's a 16-year old boy in Germany fighting the good fight. Do any American breweries have apprenticeship programs for high schoolers?) Yes, anyone should be able to decline this course due to religious or conscientious objection, and by all means follow your conscience and teach your children to do the same, but treating alcohol like dirty secret only to be revealed as a cheap drug in far-away frat houses isn't doing young people, society, or study abroad programs any favors. And, after all, excellence in pleasure means not needing to rely on any pleasure for your happiness. A student, thus prepared, might find themselves abroad in a culture where the sauce is forbidden and still have the capacity for an enriching and enjoyable experience without touching a drop.
The same thing could be said of technology. Coclanis would ban smart phones if he could. He can't, and I think that's a good thing, but we can help him by raising our children to use technology well, and even when we're disoriented by the tech world's ever-changing landscape. My six-year old is growing up in a world that befuddles me more with every new adaption. My early-adaptor friend Justin has been evangelizing SnapChat to us old fogies who still think Twitter is modern, and for my daughters' sake, I'm starting to listen.
For my sake, I'd rather not. The only reason I knew about SnapChat, or at least knew SnapChat was the latest thing, is that I give private English lessons to teenagers. When I struck up a conversation about social media (an ESL trick is to explore topics of interest to elicit conversation without being boring), I quickly learned that Facebook is for dads, SnapChat's where it's at, and that I needed a different conversation topic.
What I've seen of SnapChat doesn't appeal to me, but I can understand it's appeal to teenagers. The temporary videos, the switching graphics, the crazy editing - it's like a digital house of mirrors. It's a ceaseless barrage of crazy images, which contrasts with my love of words, glorious bare words that leave the rest to the imagination (at least the Onion understands me). This carnival atmosphere might explain SnapChat's generation and personality gap. As Facebook's grown from a playground for students to an adult-centered shopping mall with political graffiti, it makes sense that the young people want to run off to the carnival and use technology for regret-free silliness. I watch all the movements and get queasy; I feel the same way when I'm at a real carnival and I see teenagers devour chilli-dogs before hopping on the whirl-a-rama.
But in a few teensy years, my daughters will be exploring the carnival themselves. It's helpful, then, if I also know what's out there, so that I can help them navigate these pleasures with excellence. I've had a lot of helpful conversation with other parents whose kids are already of smart phone age, and it is a challenge for those of us who grew up with AOL and Gateway computers. But it means a patient, loving engagement, not to spy, but to understand the world they're entering, and help them use it in a way that it doesn't use them.
The marketers and the adults are descending on SnapChat, so I figure by the time my kids are old enough it'll be passe and the carnival will have moved elsewhere. But it will be there, and I pray I'll be able to help them use it well.
Humans, learning, and morality are complex, so there's no guarantee that any of this will spell maturity in travelling twenty-somethings. Sometimes it takes a horrible mistake for us to actually learn, so it's not all hopeless. It's a worthy pursuit. Excellence in pleasure, in this world, means "walking in the light" as the Apostle Paul instructs us. Coclani's description of fleshy immaturity reminds me of another phrase from Paul, this time condemning: "their god is their belly." What other gods have we been invited to follow, day in and day out? Excellence in pleasure suggests there's another.