Two weeks ago, the seventh best party school in the country (as determined by Niche.com) suspended two dozen students for attending a large nighttime gathering on its quad, in violation of the college’s social distancing regulations. In doing so, the administration at Syracuse University adopted a public face of shock that its undergraduate students, almost all of whom are under the age of 23, would flout pandemic-driven public health guidance in the face of their own social needs — this despite the fact that Syracuse had already suspended, for similar transgressions, a batch of freshmen only two weeks earlier; this despite the fact that Syracuse has its own department of Human Development & Family Science that presumably would have informed its administration of the futility of herding adolescents, had it wanted to listen; and this despite the fact that the university accepts half of all applicants, invites them to attend top-flight athletic events replete with “pre-games” and tailgates, and happily finds that many are willing to spend almost three times as much in tuition for this experience as for the public university down the road.
“The world is watching, and they expect you to fail,” Syracuse Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie accurately communicated to his students in an open letter. “Prove them wrong.” Which is like telling an NBA rookie, “LeBron is going to try and dunk on you — don’t let him!”
At the root of this response to students gathering surreptitiously is a willful ignorance — not just on the part of Syracuse, but also dozens of other colleges across the country — of normative adolescent behavior. We don’t ask our second graders to solve integral calculus problems, we don’t allow anyone to run our country until she is over 35, and we don’t expect anyone over 40 to figure out TikTok — yet we drop thousands of 18-year-olds, hundreds of miles away from the parents who raised them, on an isolated campus with strangers and expect them to stay inside, playing Xbox and charades.
Charades is exactly what these college administrations are playing, because their serious return-to-school plans and solemn expectations of their students’ behavior belie the conclusions of the academic research these institutions have published. Adolescent brain transformations include progressive changes toward maturity, as neuronal synapses in the prefrontal cortex prune and refine, but they are accompanied by simultaneous regressive changes. The inhibitory control systems that mature during the last stages of adolescence occur, to no one’s surprise, between the ages of 19 and 25 — think car crashes and “Coeds Gone Wild” videos, as Mother Nature cares not a whit about the legal obligations that come at 18, nor the social privileges that do not arrive until 21.
Emotional circumstances can overwhelm neurologic control systems, as the adolescent brain displays elevated perceptions of reward and decreased activation in areas of risk assessment. That’s why a thrill-seeker might think it’s a good idea to skateboard off the roof of his frat house, or why an honor student, lonely and eager to make new friends, sees no harm in an outdoor mingle among dozens of people during a deadly pandemic. Observational studies from university psychology departments tell us this, functional brain MRI studies from graduate schools tell us this, and our own empiric experiences, regrettably, tell us this. In other words: Science, in all its forms, tells us this.
And yet, in a deeply fractured society facing the greatest global challenge since World War II, academic elites bemoan a growing populist rejection of science just as their own institutions reject the same science that they themselves have advanced, for it does not suit their operational interests. That is why Purdue University can invite their students back to campus, for a five-figure fee, and then suspend them for their age-appropriate drive for social contact — at the same time that these inconvenient behavioral norms are taught and defined by the institution itself. That is why Virginia Tech can do the same to its students, even though their psychology professors presumably teach that the threat of punishment is a weak deterrent for late-stage adolescents because their brains are insensitive to aversive stimuli. And that is why Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard’s public health school, can identify compliance as the biggest challenge to any college reopening plan — and yet Harvard opened anyway.
College officials, under their own emotional circumstances, are rejecting mature inhibition — and with that they are rejecting science.
So I would like to refer university officials nationwide to a classic drama, taught every semester in their own halls: “Oedipus Rex,” in which a king tries to find out the source of all the trouble in his land, and when he learns that it is in fact he who is the force of instability in his kingdom, he puts out his own eyes.
— Douglas Krohn, MD is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College in Valhalla and a primary care pediatrician in CareMount Medical Group, a clinical affiliate of The Massachusetts General Hospital headquartered in Chappaqua. He resides in Scarsdale.