Of all the experiences I had at ACL this year, the strangest by far was seeing three young, unsupervised children in the middle of a crowd going wild for Kendrick Lamar, a rap artist known mainly for his rhymes about the palliative effects of “Pussy and Patron.” Beside the kids, a college-aged man lit up a joint just above their heads. The moment made me pause and ask: What exactly, if anything, is wrong about this situation, and what am I supposed to be doing about it?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying explicit music. It’s possible, too, that these kids couldn’t tell the difference between tobacco smoke and marijuana smoke, and even if they could have, they may not have known that they were witnessing an illegal activity. What frustrated me, then, was that the young man besides them was completely ignoring his duties as a role model.
Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, has researched the ways in which children imitate others. Her research has shown that when a child sees two individuals engaging in the same activity, they may conclude that such an activity — for example, sharing a toke at a Kendrick Lamar concert — is an acceptable social convention. Contrastly, her research also indicates that a child’s prior knowledge plays a large role in determining whether or not that action is socially acceptable.
So do college students have a duty to serve as role models when in the presence of children? College students as a group, admittedly, don’t have the greatest reputation. Type in “College students are” to the Google search bar and you’re prompted with the words “stupid, annoying, lazy, idiots [and] snobs.” Not quite a ringing endorsement. But the evidence points toward how college-enrolled millennials are actually quite admirable as a group, especially when it comes to civic engagement and volunteering.
For example, a Spring 2013 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that nearly 53 percent of college students volunteer on a regular basis. According to the Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement, 75 percent of UT students volunteered last year, for a total of 1,000,000 hours that year alone.
Just by being enrolled at UT, a world-class institution of higher learning with a recognizable brand, we may already be seen as role models, whether we are aware of it or not. To the kids who visit campus throughout the year for events such as Explore UT or Ready, Set, Go, the campus and its constituency represent what the future could hold.
Ultimately, we enrolled at UT for a reason: To learn how we can best transform lives for the benefit of society. We attend university to become virtuous contributors to civic society, be it through the accumulation of technical skills or the development of critical faculties. In both cases, the goal is to contribute to progress in society. In this sense, by gaining a university education, we not only contribute to our own self-betterment but also to the betterment of society.
While I’m not advocating that we stop enjoying ourselves as we see fit, I do think we need to be aware of how we project ourselves to those around us, especially easily-impressed-upon youngsters. On principle, I don’t think that smoking marijuana is an impermissible act, but I do believe that breaking the law in public sets a bad example for kids who see us. As contributors to civic life, we should be mindful of how we interact with the youth in our community and try to personify the values we wish for our society — at ACL and elsewhere.
Sridhar is a Plan II, math and economics sophomore from Sugar Land.