THE ANXIOUS YEARS OF AN UNDERGRADUATE
In this fall’s record crop of more than 120,000 Canadian university students, a few will try suicide before spring. Many will quit eating, go to pieces, flunk out. What bothers them? And do their teachers understand? Two Maclean’s reporters asked students and staff at the University of Toronto. These are some of the answers
By Barbara Moon David Lewis Stein
RONALD HART is a lanky boy with lanky brown hair and thick glasses, the son of prosperous parents. His father is a salesman but wants his son to be a lawyer. His mother would like him to be a doctor. Young Hart (a pseudonym, like the names of all undergraduates in this article) is going into his fourth year in Political Science and Economics at the University of Toronto. As early as high school he had read Emile Burns' Handbook of Marxism and had declared himself by organizing a fund to look after the dogs of secret policemen who had been shot during the Hungarian revolt. In his first two years of college he devoted most of his time to militant radical causes. Among other things he helped organize a march of protest in front of the French consulate against the Sahara A-bomb tests; demonstrated on the city hall steps against the Sharpeville massacres; distributed 1,500 radical socialist leaflets around the campus; drove to North Bay to demonstrate against the BOM ARC missile sites there.
His parents were very upset and told him his behavior wasn't respectable and that he. would be barred from the U. S. Hart himself, however, was perfectly happy.
Last year he became acutely unhappy and anxious. As Hart puts it, “I lost my intellectual convictions. I began to wonder if I liked militant and disrespectable causes just because they were militant and disrespectable — because of what my parents and teachers had drummed into me. 1 tried to convince myself that the values and preferences 1 had had some sort of objective basis.” He drew up “psychological manifestoes” and showed them to people, “trying to rationalize my position.” Sample: “Man must cither not be free or must act irrationally or inconsistently — or not at all.” He felt, and still feels, as if he were “floating.” He says, “Last year was really bad . . .”
Everyone — even if he believes in God, or has been psychoanalysed — has problems. And everyone’s problems are particular to him alone. So all undergraduates have problems and these problems, like Ronald Hart’s, are particular to each of them.
But Ronald Hart will do as well as anyone to introduce the thesis that what goes on in an undergraduate’s mind and life looks different to him than it may do to most outsiders, that he feels more strongly about it than he will feel about almost anything ever again, and that it is very difficult for anyone who is not an undergraduate quite to see and feel things the same way — perhaps because it’s just too tiring an exercise.
Thus, if you ask a campus observer what students worry about he may say, as does Northrop Frye, principal of Victoria College, “The same things as their elders: finances, their social relationships, the newspaper headlines.” Or he might echo Dr. G. E. Wodehouse, head of the University Health Service, who lists, “Loneliness, homesickness and finances, perhaps family pressure, deadlines — and the competition, which at Toronto is very high.” Or perhaps, like Joseph McC’ulley, Warden of Hart House, he might say, “Choice of vocation, finances and prolonged dependency on their families.”
All three men base their answers on many years of direct contact with undergraduates, and what they say is accurate: almost all students have to deal with almost all of these problems at one time or another. Thus, by definition, they worry about CONTINUED ON PAGE 81
HOW THE EXPERTS SEE STUDENT WORRIES
JOSEPH McCULLEY, WARDEN OF HART HOUSE:
“Tlieir biggest, most frequent problem is the very simple one of vocation
DR. JOHN DEW AN, PSYCHIATRIC CONSULTANT TO THE HEALTH SERVICE: “Last year we saw about 150 of the students, out of about 15,000. Of these, only six were sick enough to be sent to a mental hospital. Then we had six in the infirmary to write their exams, partly to calm their hysteria and partly to isolate them from the other students, because this kind of anxiety is catching. There were no suicides — we have no records of any actual suicides at the university — and only four suicide attempts. Two of these were people HT were already seeing, but two never consulted anybody and UT only heard about them when they wound up in a generaI hospital. The commonest symptom of undergraduate stress is anxiety. Anywhere from ten to fifty percent of students feel this at sinne time during their ocareers, perhaps many more."
NORTHROP FRYE, PRINCIPAL, VICTORIA COLLEGE:
“Maybe it’s the Scottish strain in Canada, but they don’t easily go for help — it’s rather strikingly different if you go to the States where the students want to climb right up into your lap with their problems. If they do seek help, their instinct is to reach for the youngest member of the staff — if they know any members of the staff. I had a political science student come to me who wanted to take journalism at Columbia, but he needed a letter of recommendation from some professor who knew him personally. He’d been in a first-year pass English class of mine, and after four years he still didn't know anyone to come to but me. He came in and said diffidently. ’Do you know who / am?' "
G. E. WODEHOUSE. DIRECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY HEALTH SERVICE:
“The vast majority of undergraduates don’t have medically serious worries . . . Aside from the required medical for freshmen, we see about thirty percent of the student population of 15,(100 each year. Of these, perhaps half or a little more have some anxiety as well as the physical symptoms they consult us about. The thing is, the vast majority can he fixed up in two easy steps or, if you can’t fit in an appointment for them for a week, very often you find by then the problem Is gone."
REV. J. SHERIDAN, ST. MICHAEL’S COLLEGE:
“There’s a retd academic problem. In high school they always worked under scrutiny with someone continually prodding them. In their first year at university they have a vague sort of feeling that someone will tell them when it’s time to get to work. As a result, in February and March when they realize how little they have done, some become hysterical."
J. D. KETCHUM. PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY:
“A man with a job is Doing. The undergraduate is here not to Do hut to Think. So he stews for four years. There's no question, no matter how you look at it, coming to university is an awful shock."
F. E. L. PRIESTLEY. PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH:
“Our business is not to use up our time on the runts of the litter. Our business is with the best of the litter."
K. S BERNHARDT, DIRECTOR OF THE INSTITUTE FOR CHILD STUDY:
“The university, by which I mean the staff, is split on two approaches: the sink-or-swim philosophy which holds that they're dealing with adults who don’t need to be babied, counseled or given much help. This is the approach which predominates on this campus. Then there is a minority who believe that they’re dealing with near-adults, many of whom do need help, a chance to talk to a more mature, experienced person."
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Tension was the biggest problem in one student’s life. What caused the tension? Boredom, he said.
them — or ought to worry. But by their own accounts many of them don’t particularly. In one U. S. survey — no such formal study exists in Canada — several thousand students checked off a simple lisWof problems in order of importance; the leading category, checked by almost a third of the students, was “Problems of Personality.” Another survey, of around three hundred students, attempted to identify “problem areas.” In this case the greatest number of students indicated most problems were in their “Adjustment to College Work.” The problem of finances was scarcely acknowledged by the students in either survey.
Another group of surveys helps to underline the paradox: they show, in the opinion of their designers that the students don’t know what their own problems are anyway. For example, only fifteen percent of a group of Harvard sophomores thought they had problems of shyness, feelings of inferiority, overaggressiveness, or difficul-
ties in meeting girls or making friends. The staff thought forty-three percent of them had.
There’s a further difficulty. If—instead of handing a student a check list and thereby invi ng him to conscientious selfanalysis—you simply ask him what he worries about a lot you’re apt to get answers that aren’t in any questionnaire. The problem uppermost in the mind of a fourth-year math prodigy this fall was, he said, “tension.” What causes the tension? “Boredom.” This is the main thing that really worries you, makes you anxious, occupies your thoughts? “Yes.”
What all this means is that it’s a lot easier to find out what undergraduates have to cope with than to guess what they’re actually making of it.
What they have to cope with, roughly, is this: they are members of an élite, sorted by brains, of the top twelve percent in their age group throughout the country.
By definition, therefore, they’re apt to do more thinking than the run of older teen-agers. They come to university at a time when, the psychologists say. they are due to work out four crucial adjustments in their lives: choice of vocation, separation from their parents, falling in love and deciding what they really believe. Then the university itself imposes on them certain intellectual, emotional and moral experiences under hothouse conditions. It also imposes some quite circumstantial difficulties and trials.
The major one is the experience of violent transplantation from the familiar. The freshman has left behind almost everyone and everything he knows to enter a completely new community with its own geography and ground rules. The majority of undergraduates find it fun, but to some it brings a feeling of disorientation and panic. In its most unsettling aspect it
means the undergraduate, coming from regulated family life and an authoritarian secondary-school system, is suddenly given unique, almost total, freedom of choice and action. Most undergraduates will admit that, at one time or another, they have not handled this freedom very well. This does not necessarily mean they all worry about it.
. . . Tom Clifford, a stocky bespectacled boy, is the son of a missionary and went to a church-run high school where the literature course consisted of biographies of missionaries. One day he read a copy of Macbeth and discovered The Theatre. When he came to the university he quickly found the extracurricular outlets for his interest and by his second
Tom flunked. But he said, “It was the most exciting period of my life”
year he was deep in stage-managing and directing campus plays. He also began collaborating on book and lyrics for an original undergraduate show. Last Christmas he was rehearsing a cast for a January production and simply skipped his midterm exams. At the same time he also “fell in love" for the first time. After rehearsing his cast till I 1 p.m. he would spend from I I p.m. till 2.30 a.m. with his girl, then go home and work until dawn on a production book for an existentialist play. Then he slept until three or four in the afternoon and went to the campus to start rehearsals again. His mother sometimes asked him why he wasn’t going to school during the day and he would tell her, "I only have one lecture today and it’s at two o'clock and not very important so I think I’ll skip it.” Some of his professors warned him mildly that his work was slipping. He remembers that this “burned me up.” Last spring ClifTord wrote and passed all his exams but on the basis of his term work he was flunked. He says. “I don’t regret a minute of it. It was the most exciting period of my life ...”
Exams and essays arc almost the only external abettors of self - discipline that the student finds at university. But these are in themselves peculiar trials for him, since they involve both deadlines and concert pitch.
He has come here, after all, on intellectual business; but few people in other jobs face anything at all like these recurring ordeals of inquisition and judgment; nor do they face being flunked out for three hours’ bad work in an examination hall. So this is one aspect of a student’s life about which he admits he worries. He is conscious of competition, too. College has been getting steadily more overcrowded. This year three quarters of the faculties and courses on the Toronto campus are restricting enrollment; at the other end, over-all failure rates are climbing; academic prowess also has more chic than it had. say, ten years ago, before Sputnik. The student is competing in other ways, too: with the girl who’s already been to Europe twice and has met Stephen Spender; with the boy who read Kant in high school; with the roommate who has more and better dates; with the campus Communist who has actually spent a night in jail.
And if he hasn’t been handling his time right—and sometimes even if he has—he’s just plain tired.
So he may start feeling anxious a good Lleal of the time. If he iloes, hurdles may begin to loom, self-doubts, irritations or symptoms may knock at his awareness for the first time, becoming the kind of “problems" that the questionnaires tabulate. This is when, if he’s minded to accept help, he looks for someone to listen to him and this is when an hour or two of sympathetic audience can effect miraculous cures.
The canny student adviser learns to make exactly the same distinction among the complaints brought to him as the doctor makes between somatic and psychosomatic symptoms: they may be identical, equally felt by the victims; hut one has a kind of objective logic and the other only a subjective logic. As an example, consider the patterns discerned by Health Service counselors in the complaints brought by students from various faculties. In each case the diagnosis was the same—a simple anxiety state—but what the medical students said they had were the physical symptoms of exotic diseases; the psychology majors came with worries about "relating” and “dependency”; and the philos-
ophy students felt “insignificant” and “lost in the universe.”
More than any other group, undergraduates seem to worry according to a subjective logic. Their crucial activity at university, after all, is study and thought and talk. And they are so absorbed in it that genuine — even tragic — difficulties sometimes seem to impose less real stress on them than some crisis of belief or selfknowledge.
. . . Helga Frank wears glasses and has straight brown shoulder - length hair. Though she lives at home she has not got along with her parents for a long time. Two years ago, shortly after her first-year university exams, she had a baby out of wedlock. When she first found she was pregnant the father, a graduate student, declined to help financially or otherwise. She decided on her own to go ahead and have the baby, arranged to move into a university residence and there disguised her condition successfully with loose skirts, large sweaters and a raincoat. At the end of term she told her parents she was going to w'ork out of town, took a room with friends, had the baby in July, farmed it out for adoption and returned home. “If you have a problem to face you face it.” She does not think about the experience very much now and at no time during it did she seek advice or help. However last year she sought out a psychiatrist at the University Health Service and went to him for six weeks. She thought she had discovered she was a neurotic. “I was introverted, inhibited and shy. I tended to re-
late things to myself to a greater degree than others did.” She says the most important thing that has happened to her since she came to university was “learning to sit dou'n and read or think about something by myself ...”
It is partly the prevailing intellectual self-awareness of the campus that makes undergraduates worry about themselves and their personalities and their relationships with others—for these are indeed anxieties they often confess. It is also partly just their age.
Their particular age also imposes other stresses: now is the biological time for them to leave the nest, choose a career, pick a mate, draw up a creed. Being at university makes all these things harder for undergraduates.
For example, the campus is an unique assembly of the eligible-for-marriage, and it offers the climate for intense emotional relationships; but the fact of being students means marriage must either be postponed or, if it is not, undertaken under real economic hardship. In the same way. being a student postpones the crucial rite of adulthood—taking a job—while it may well unsettle his mind about what he wants to do.
But it is in his divorcement from his parents and in his finding of a faith that the university imposes special and singular stresses on the undergraduate.
The young man or woman with a job wins his independence from his parents with his first wage packet but the student remains more or less a dependent until he
is graduated. It is almost inevitable that his parents should consider him still in the nest—and galling to the student to admit the justice of their attitude. He is absorbed in what he is experiencing, to which they are simply a distraction: in the light of his new lore he becomes explicitly critical of them: he does not want to talk to them about himself. The French universities regard it as so important to emancipate the student from this kind of situation that they have suggested the state pay them salaries. Conflict can be acute if the parents themselves are not collegeeducated. or are not in sympathy with college education—an accident that becomes more common as the B.A. becomes more popular.
"... My father thinks I’m a Communist.” Patricia Bobak looks cool and amused though her hands tremble when she lights her cigarette. She is enrolled in third-year Philosophy but her parents, who are Hungarian-born, did not even finish high school. They read neither books nor newspapers. At university she has been most
excited by the philosophy classes—"w'here people arc trying to think out things like ethics instead of just accepting them because of the authority of the church”— and by conversations with interesting people. Last year she lived at home but spent a lot of time in the college coffee shop. She recalls silting at a table talking one day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. She differs with her parents about everything—religion. politics, even doctors. Her father grows resentful and stiffens up when she attempts to discuss anything with him, regarding it as a questioning of his authority. Now, when he wants to show contempt for something, he says. “That’s the sort of a thing a university professor would say.” She feels her parents are proud of the wrong things—“that I’m good-looking and 1 can cook and sew”—and not proud of what she considers the right things—her marks, the time she directed a play. Last winter she brought her parents down to show them around the campus. “I hey said it was an awful lot of buildings just to educate a lot of rich kids.” Patricia has saved some money and this term she has moved into an apartment of her own . . .
Undergraduates are. it should be repeated, a bright lot. They are at university specifically to use their minds. And at university every possible idea and experience and taste and belief comes crowding in on them at once. They may fall in love with a Negro, meet their first homosexual, get caught up in a panty raid, console a girl who’s found she’s pregnant, get drunk, stay up all night, consider suicide, discover Kingsley Amis, play Medea, take Benzedrine or be asked to sign a ban-the-bomb petition. All this is in addition to their regular lectures. It is an unique bombardment— exhilarating, painful, occasionally shattering.
. . . Bill Robins has a gaunt face and an emaciated body. He is rather older than the average undergraduate, having gone through bible college in Regina before he
gave up the idea of being a missionary and decided to come to university. He enrolled in Greek and Hebrew. He quickly got involved in the Student Christian Movement on the campus and he went to church regularly and said grace before his meals. His course included a philosophy class conducted by Professor Marcus Long and as nearly as Robins remembers it. Long said in his opening lecture. "1 want to get hold of everything you hold sacred and smash it.” Robins remarks. "He certainly succeeded.” Then, during a drive with one of the adult advisers of the
Student Christian Movement, the conversation got around to the idea of the devil. The adviser said. “You don’t really believe in all that stuff, do you?” Robins said nothing at the time but thinking it over later, he says, he found he really didn’t believe in the devil. From there he “worked his way through to the corollary: if there’s no devil there’s no God either.” He severed his church affiliations that summer because he decided that “whatever I had meant heretofore by the word God 1 would have to re-evaluate.” The next fall he switched ta the Honor Philosophy
course. He also asked the University Health Service to direct him to a psychiatrist: “It’s a question of belief until you go through this searing process of doubt, and then it’s a question of understanding ...” Undergraduates have the sort of problems that afflict all people, plus the problems peculiar to their age group, plus some that are pecul ar only to the campus life. If they sometimes seem too rapt to notice any of these it is because—with all that is happening to them—their most important problem is. simply, what to make of it all. ★