The Pressures on College Girls Today

The author of The Doctor's Job and of other books related to medicine and psychiatry, and editor in chief of Psychosomatic Medicine, Dr. Carl Binger is presently serving as psychiatric consultant to the Harvard University Health Services. His article which follows forms part of a new volume, Emotional Problems of the Student, edited by Graham B. Blame, Jr., and Charles C. McArthur, to be published by AppletonCenturyCrofts this month.

One gets the impression that the relationship between the sexes is still in an experimental phase, that it is motivated partly by idealism, partly by a spirit of rebellion against parents or others in authority, partly by the desire of young people to find out about themselves, partly by loneliness, partly by a kind of new conventionality and a wish not to miss anything, but above all, for the girls, by the feeling of approbation which the steady attention of one boy gives them. When he does not call up for two days, the girl's world begins to totter. The demands are often unequal and at variance. By the time the girl has said "yes" to herself and has stilled her doubts and her feeling of guilt, the boy may be on the way out of the relationship. This leads to quarreling and a loss of dignity and selfesteem in the girl. She may feel bereft, or "all empty inside." When she is then asked to do a paper on "lambulos' Sunstate and Its Relation to the Pergamene Revolt under Aristonicos in 133 B.C." or on "Turkish Naval Power in the Sixteenth Century," she may well be dismayed as she stares, with a blank mind, at a blank piece of paper.

It seems to me that educators have at least the responsibility of looking facts in the face. If they relax parietal rules sufficiently to permit girls to go to boys' rooms and remain there until late, then they should realize what the consequences are likely to be. They should realize, too, that these pressures on girls, even the most resilient and well balanced of them, will at times interfere with their work. It is all very well to say that this is part of life and that they must learn to take things in their stride. We seem to forget that life is fuller and moves faster for them than it did for us at their age. They have more "experiences" in a week than most of us had in a year.

Dean Briggs of Harvard used to say that college is a place to make mistakes, but mistakes today are far costlier than they once were. The price of academic failure, or even mediocre performance, may be great. It means that further graduate study is probably barred or that good jobs are not easily come by. The price of mistakes in relations with the opposite sex can be high indeed, sometimes nearly ruinous.

Young girls, one must remember, are vulnerable, sensitive, idealistic, often introspective and emotional, inclined to think ill of themselves and to compare themselves, to their own disadvantage, with men, whose good opinion means so much to them. We should recognize them for what they are, as wonderful young women in their own right, and build up this positive picture.

I have been greatly impressed with their candor and frankness, with their willingness to avow their feelings and to cut through much conventional cant and nonsense. Many of them have a gift for understanding themselves and others and a need to talk out some of their perplexities and to find some ethical and aesthetic pattern for their lives. They are distressed by the formless chaos that surrounds them and sometimes recognize this for what it is, as evil. They know intuitively that the unexamined life is not worth living. They are, of course, concerned with themselves and revel in their own freedom, but they are willing to prepare themselves, emotionally, at least, for the eventual task of child rearing, which they appear to do with so much competence and even joy.

A college which disregards their essential nature is doing only part of its job. If it wants girls to get the best out of their courses of instruction, then provision must be made for some easement and for some time for discussion with intelligent and reasonably mature adults who are not too quick to give advice but are willing to listen. I recall a young girl saying to me once that she could do her work all right, but it didn't leave her time to grow up. Young people need time for this and time to talk and to give expression to some of their perplexities. I realize that we have not found the ideal way to success in this enterprise, that each college will have to follow the plan that fits its own tradition. The problems in exclusively female institutions are not essentially different from those in coeducational ones, since they are both dependent upon pressures and upon the natural vulnerability which the girl brings with her. Everyone concerned with young people must be concerned with this aspect of their development.

If not, what passes for education may be only a kind of "intellectual conditioning," without depth of meaning, or hope for the future.

I have no wish to end this article on a negative note, nor to leave the reader with the impression that nothing can be accomplished either by way of preventing these emotional disturbances in young college women or of dealing with them once they have arisen. Exactly the reverse is true. There is probably no segment of the population which appears to be more amenable to treatment than just this group of intelligent, sensitive, idealistic young women with their futures before them.

We have no sure formula to prevent the kind of depression I have described in this article. We do not know how to instill humor where none exists. But we can encourage selfacceptance and a sense of identity; and, unless the student has been too much damaged in childhood by a lack of trust, we can provide an atmosphere, even a rigorously competitive one, in which courage does not too quickly flag.

There is much to be said for confrontation with more mature persons, not only in the faculty but in the student body, too, where the inclusion of some older men and women, who are completing unfinished college work, can add to the meaningfulness of study. And the choice of new members of a faculty should be made with an eye to their concern for students as well as for their creative scholarship. When the two are combined, the stage is well set. There is a salutary effect also in good talk, not only of the bullsession kind, but talk with sophisticated, critical persons who are concerned with the human situation. Out of this can come compelling and charismatic ideas, which may last a lifetime. Nothing we can do for this generation or the next can be more important than to help these young women toward a clearer image of themselves. This will give them the self-esteem they need and the vigor to lead satisfying and creative lives.

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