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President's Page: Fear of Failing

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Erica Jong’s (Class of ’63) epic Fear of Flying, a passionate and explicit tale that broke the boundaries of feminine fiction. Before Jong, women were apparently allowed to have sex, but not write about it. After Jong, with her detailed descriptions of sex and affairs and desires, there was no going back.

Fear of Flying hit the bestseller lists in 1973, and remained there throughout 1974 and 1975, eventually going on to sell more than 18 million copies. Part of what made the book so popular, no doubt, was the sex. Indeed, as Jong herself later recalled, “[I]t became the book teenagers read to learn about sex, the book women read to liberate themselves, the book men read to learn about women.” (I know. It saved me from Dr. Spock Talks to Six- to Twelve-Year Olds, my only prior resource.) The bigger impact of Flying, though, came from the vigor with which Jong separated sex from romance, and marriage from the norm. Until Fear of Flying—or more precisely, until the shift in social attitudes that Jong captured so emphatically—women of a certain age were expected to fall in love, get married, and have babies, in that order. Afterward they were free—free to embrace excitement and to abandon what they were supposed to do in favor of what they desired.

Today, Flying, like most of us, bears the undeniable mark of its age. Its central affair would register these days as a humdrum hook-up; its explicitness pales before that of grocery-store bestsellers like the apparently infinite Shades of Grey. Yet there is still something about the book that I fear our current students miss—a sense of adventure, perhaps, or an embrace of risk that transcends sexuality. Demographically, college students in 2013 are having considerably more sex than were their counterparts in 1973. They are having sex earlier, with more partners, and with far less commitment than Jong’s heroine could have imagined. What I sense they are missing, though, is romance—not just of the sexual sort, but the starting-out-in-life sort. The sort that makes young women board slow-moving trains and find whatever might await them.

Today, our students tend to travel along more precise tracks. Like students at elite colleges and universities everywhere, they come to us with well-honed resumes and years of college preparation. They have taken dance classes and clarinet lessons; launched nonprofits, organized science fairs, and studied endlessly for the SATs. Once they arrive on campus, they throw themselves into even bigger whirlwinds of activity. Clubs. Student government. Study groups. Many of them are double- or triple- majors. Some undertake multiple internships. Very few, it seems, have time to catch their breath—much less to embark upon adventures that don’t lead to specific ends. Sometimes I am awestruck by their energy and ambition. But sometimes I am sad. Like when one extraordinary young woman nearly broke down in my office, worried that her commitment to an incredible off-campus activity might drag her grade-point average from an A- to a B+. Or when another confessed that the pressure of it all was pushing her to exhaustion. Some of this is natural, since college has always been a busy time of life. Some of it, no doubt, is being prodded by the still-sullen state of the economy. But some of it, too, I fear, is being driven by this generation’s deep-seated resistance to anything that falls short of perfection.

This is the generation, after all, that grew up with attachment parenting and hours of educational television. They grew up playing elementary-school soccer on teams where everyone was captain and watching high-school music videos in which every girl with a gorgeous voice looked likea model as well. (Jong’s generation, by contrast, had Janis Joplin and Mama Cass, incredible musicians who weren’t exactly saddled with the simultaneous demands of Vogue.) They grew up with parents who were deeply involved in their day-to-day lives and deeply committed to their success. Much of this is fine, and certainly well intentioned. But it has also bequeathed upon this generation a fear of falling short, of disappointing others and their own well-laid plans: a fear of failing.

Recently, an article in the student newspaper at Bowdoin College described the extent to which even student hook- ups (essentially, anonymous couplings that ran the gamut from kissing to sex) were being driven by this fear. Or as one student commented “It’s easier to send a text message than to have to put yourself out there and have an actual conversation...much easier than being rejected in person.” It’s odd. Because on the one hand, hook-ups are the logical conclusion to Jong’s fantasy—the idea that women can use sexual encounters to address their own demands and desires. On the other hand, though, by taking away the complexities of romance, hook-ups can appear to protect young women without necessarily fulfilling them. They remove the adventure of love, the heady, terrifying prospect of falling hard and losing control. I wouldn’t wish this fate on our students, of course, or fault them for managing their personal lives as carefully as their academic ones. But sometimes, I long to throw Jong back at them; to tell them to forget the internship for one summer, to forego the research project, and just get on a train to nowhere and see where it might go.