By Tyler Massie
This was it. After two years of exploring, indulging, pondering, and observing – predominantly observing – the strange and fascinating phenomenon that is collegiate dorm life, I’d inadvertently stumbled upon the key to all of my many questions.
I was leaning casually against the wall of a student’s apartment, sipping on a fresh beer, surrounded by fellow undergraduates, when I looked up and first noticed the brand-new homemade banner running along the top of the opposite wall. Right away I knew it was a classic. It was the perfect college mantra.
One slogan to rule them all. It read: “TAKE WHAT YOU CAN GIVE NOTHING BACK.”
The capitalized, bold text drew rave reviews from the guests, and its underlying message couldn’t have been more clear, or accurate: college students can sometimes make Kanye West look humble.
This isn’t exactly fresh news. It seems that our professors have been monitoring us from the outside for decades. A study conducted at the University of San Diego administered a standardized evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to over 16,000 college students from 1982 to 2006, and the study found that college students are scoring repeatedly higher on the test over time – indicating that college students may be more narcissistic today than they were a few decades ago.
We could blame any number of factors for the discovery. The self-esteem movement increases in the standard of living and affluence, or social problems such as the skyrocketing divorce rate (which forces so many children to develop in sub-optimal family conditions) are all potential culprits. Some may argue more generally, that America itself is caught in the grip of a steady moral decline.
Pick your favorite, or invent your own. Whatever the cause, YOU ARE HERE, as any shopping mall map will tell you. So what’s the big deal? Does it matter if college students happen to be incredibly selfish and conceited? Isn’t it just a phase?
Well, maybe. It’s true that a college campus is essentially a separate world, its own utopia (or insane asylum, if you prefer) of pretty faces and an ever-flowing river of booze. As with all supposed idea places, the college experience represents only a fleeting moment in our lives. After that, we are loosed into the ranks of working America: to learn to live on our own, be responsible and contribute to society. Many members of the older generation look back to their college years and shake their heads at their own excess and immaturity. They can joke and laugh about this now, because these are people who have gone on to lead happy and productive lives.
And yet, the San Diego study offers some dour warnings about the long-term consequences of unchecked egotism. According to the study, narcissism has an extremely adverse effect on our relationships with others. Romantic relationships involving narcissists are more likely to be “short-lived” and “at risk for infidelity.” They also tend to “lack emotional warmth” and involve plenty of “game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.” Aside from “romantic” relationships, a narcissist’s interactions with society at large aren’t any better: they often “lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others.”
Sounds a lot like some college students, doesn’t it? While I have met many truly wonderful people here on campus, there are others whom I wonder about. I suspect that many college students can’t handle the newfound freedom of the college scene. The environment is perhaps more challenging then ever, given the social trends. College students toil in a constant, unprecedented state of flux, as friends, fashion, and lovers can all change at a moment’s notice in the Information Age. In such a free-reign environment, the narcissistic attitudes under steady development prior to college can suddenly explode like an athlete on steroids.
It’s easy to become lost in such a wilderness: it may be difficult to find the way back. I often wonder if a “point of no return” actually exists for externally-cultivated narcissism, wherein the trait ingrains itself permanently into one’s personality, and I wonder if college can possibly be a catalyst for reaching that point. I wonder if some college students are building upon an empty ethos that may haunt them well into their adult life—and make all their higher education and experience virtually worthless in the larger context because they’re so unhappy at their core. This unhappiness can be seen in the eyes of a drunk girl hunched over the toilet and crying, or (more subtly) heard in the cynical, acid-tongued retorts of a flippant frat boy.
A lot of valuable knowledge can be gleaned in college. Knowledge that we hope furthers our careers and our personal development. Who we are when we graduate will help determine what we bring to society’s table. If what we bring is narcissism and its symptoms—selfishness, insecurity, insincerity, and ultimately, misery—society will be that much worse off.
Let’s hope it’s just a phase.