Is Academia a Failed Initiation Rite?

Is Academia a Failed Initiation Rite? February 10, 2021

Academia as Initiation

Now that I’m (mostly) outside the world of American higher education, I’ve been looking in at it from a slight remove, mulling on where it’s working and where I think it’s struggling. One area where our university system particularly shines is its ability to support what the philosopher Thomas Kuhn called normal science: the laborious, time-intensive process of devising experiments, collecting data, and slowly building out the implications of established theories or research programs. In a completely different sphere, I think colleges and universities mostly fail at enculturating their students into a firm sense of their own adulthood, complete with a sense of the obligations and privileges that adulthood entails. In many ways college is an anti-initiation rite.

Initiation rites are ceremonies or rituals that, in many cultures, serve to shoo young participants out of childhood and coax them into full-fledged adulthood, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.* Such rituals are common in small-scale and tribal cultures, but rarer in industrialized societies. The Jewish bar mitzvah and Christian confirmation rites are analogous in some ways to tribal initiation, but they’ve mostly become watered down to the point that few b’nai mitzvah or Catholic confirmands really feel that they’ve undergone any deep, profound transformation. 

Rites of Passage

But initiation rites are practically ubiquitous outside the modern, industrialized world. And while they differ dramatically from culture to culture, they have some important recurrent features. In his classic book Rites of Passage, the ethnologist Arnold Van Gennep argued that all cultures perform rituals to aid their members in the transition from one status to another — for example, from single to married, or from child to adult. These rituals vary dramatically from society to society, but Van Gennep argued that they all tend to include three consecutive stages: separation from the old role, transition between the roles, and reincorporation into society in a new role. He called the middle state — transition — “liminal,” from the Latin limen, or threshold. 

The anthropologist Victor Turner built on Van Gennep’s model by strongly emphasizing the liminal period of rituals. Turner pointed out that rites of passage are often characterized by extreme inversion of the norms of everyday life. During an initiation rite, for example, the initiands are often obliged to practice asceticism (fasting, painful challenges, abstention from sex). They might be nude, which removes all external markers of role and status and stresses the biological — as opposed to the cultural — aspects of the person. If they do wear clothing, it’s typically very simple, and identical for all participants:

Liminal entities, such as neophytes in initiation or puberty rites, may be represented as possessing nothing. They may be disguised as monsters, wear only a strip of clothing, or even go naked, to demonstrate that as liminal beings they have no status, property, insignia…

In small-scale cultures, initiands frequently spend the liminal period of the ritual out in the bush, physically removed from the rest of the tribe, where status differences drop away. Hungry, sleepless, and unclothed, the initiands form a homogeneous, egalitarian mass, far away from the comforting fires of society and its structures. They directly confront the body’s most basic  needs, which are the same whether one’s father is a chief or commoner. The liminal period of initiation rites thus de-emphasizes differences between participants by highlighting their shared, biological nature. 

According to Turner, initiands during this period may feel a shared affinity not just for each other, but for all the people they know, or even strangers. Morality, which during normal life is very particular and culturally specific, may become universalized:

(A)t certain life crises, such as adolescence, the attainment of elderhood, and death…the passage from one structural status to another may be accompanied by a strong sentiment of ‘humankindness,’ a sense of the generic social bond between all members of society—even in some cases transcending tribal or national boundaries.

Finally, in some cultures initiation rites prominently feature disillusionment. The Kiva initiation rites of the Hopi in the American Southwest culminate in Kachina dances, where adult dancers wear striking and sometimes frightening masks that represent local gods, called Kachinas. At the high point of the dance, the dancers remove the masks, revealing that the Kachinas were actually people all along.

There is, then, a complex connection between liminality, temporary social equality, and an outsider’s view of society. From that temporary outsider’s standpoint, initiands are homogeneous, cultureless biological creatures. The norms and rules of society can appear arbitrary or made-up. In some rites, such as the Kachina initiation, this disillusionment is actually intentional.

After the rite is concluded, though, the initiates become cultural creatures once again, returning to their everyday, differentiated roles and statuses. Though they may dimly remember how arbitrary the culture’s rules looked from the outside, the new initiates are expected to reintegrate in their new, adult roles, upholding the appropriate norms and obligations. The initiation rite confirms their acceptance of the heavy burdens of adulthood.

College: An Extended Initiation Rite?

What does this have to do with college? Most of us don’t think of the university years as a time of conscientious settling into long-term roles, but rather as a time of exploration and wide-open possibilities. But this experimental period is exactly what parallels an initiation rite. In its emphasis on exploration and experimentation, the American college experience is absolutely peppered with attributes of liminality. For many, it’s a kind of beer-soaked way station between childhood and full adulthood, a long-duration transition period in an extended, sprawling cultural ritual of passage.

I’m speaking partly in metaphors, but the point isn’t figurative. Not only do college students get a pass on many of adulthood’s normal rules (attending class in sweatpants and Trustafarian dreadlocks are only two of the less odious examples), but they’re also explicitly taught to question the basic assumptions and axioms of their own cultures, under the aegis of critical thinking.

Classes in social theory reveal the essential arbitrariness of the norms and values that students grew up with. Biology and genetics courses depict human beings as essentially animals — that is, physiological or biochemical organisms — that share the same organic blueprints and bodily operations regardless of culture.

Literature surveys expose young people to folktales, poetry, and novels from across societies and eras, decentering them from their own cultural narratives. And critical theory and deconstructivist paradigms can leave students feeling disembedded from, even hostile toward, the established social and political contexts they came from. Just as in the Kachina cult initiation of the Hopi, the disillusionment is part of the point.

College, in other words, is a sort of psychological Copernican revolution. Just as Copernicus mathematically demonstrated that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe after all, the college experience removes students from the center of whatever semi-coherent world they grew up in and leaves them standing amidst the flotsam of many different cultures and eras, unsure what belongs to them and what’s superfluous. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, instead of inhabiting the “warm center of the world,” they now find themselves standing at “the ragged edge of the universe.”

Again, this decentering, psychologically Copernican effect of the college experience is a close analogy to the middle period of an initiation rite. The social scientist Bjørn Thomasson writes that

the initiands live outside their normal environment and are brought to question their self and the existing social order through a series of rituals that often involve acts of pain: the initiands come to feel nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured…the formative experiences during liminality will prepare the initiand (and his/her cohort) to occupy a new social role or status, made public during the reintegration rituals.

Some college students even go “slumming,” taking on the dress and behaviors of lower-status people — thus stepping outside of the social structure, just as initiands do. Yale graduate Natalia Dashan wrote of a friend of hers on campus:

Marcus was smoking by a bench, his face jaundiced from three packs that day.…When I hugged him, he felt skeletal. I asked if he had eaten today. He assured me that his earthly requirements were limited—no need for anything other than alcohol and cigarettes.

When Dashan, overcome by empathy, offered to buy her apparently impoverished friend a sandwich, his response was unexpected:

“…He turned his face towards me, warm with friendliness—and with one sentence, he changed our relationship forever.

“You know I’m rich, right?”


“You know I have a trust fund, right? I can buy my own sandwich if I wanted it.”

…Marcus did not act this way out of anxiety, grief, stress, or because he had nobody to tell him his habits will kill him. He lived as a starving writer not out of necessity, but for the aesthetic. Out of some desire to imitate the Bohemian 19th century writers. Out of artistry. Style. Intentional choice.

Maybe her friend’s extreme slumming was motivated by aesthetics, but an anthropological perspective would suggest something more complex. In a distinctively Ivy League-ish way, Marcus was acting out one of the core features of many liminal and initiation experiences: stripping away the the markers of status and rank, removing himself from the normative bounds of society.

The Interminable Liminal Zone

The anthropological record shows that it’s probably not pathological for young people to go through a period of cultural deconstruction, where they learn how contingent and culturally relative the rules truly are. In most places and times, though, liminality eventually gives way to structure, roles, and responsibilities again after the allotted time of ambiguity and transition. Initiation rites are, after all, supposed to carry their young charges across the great river between childhood and adulthood and deposit them safely on the opposite shore. There’s no real analogue in small-scale societies for spending four years in the middle of the river. And there’s even less precedent for making the river itself a permanent destination. 

By contrast, the modern college experience doesn’t seem to worry too much about opposite shore, the reintegration of the new initiate back into society. The long, diffuse shamble of college leads us half-confidently through the first two stages of a typical initiation rite — separation and transition — but then seems to lose all its pep before reaching the third stage, reincorporation. In fact, modern Western society has difficulty wrapping up of all kinds of rites of transition

So for many college students, the experience goes something like this. You read Foucault for four years, so now you know that everything is arbitrary, a social construct. Or you immerse yourself 14 hours a day in biochemistry, learning to see people and animals primarily as mere assemblages of carbon rings. Either way, the ingredients of the cultural worldview you were raised with are disassembled, scattered out on the table in front of you.  

Somewhere deep in your organism, the loops and connections forged by 200,000 years of Homo sapiens evolution grind tentatively into gear. They send a hopeful anticipation burbling to the subconscious surface: Now the elders will help me to put everything back together again. Right? 

Wrong. Instead, the elders hand you a degree, shake your hand, and hurry you off into the world, still unsteady on your feet. Pretty soon, they start sending you peppy alumni letters asking for money.

And that’s it. That’s the end of the ritual. There is no reintegration. 

Good luck, kids!

Whose Culture? Which Initiation?

One reason for the notably extended exploratory period between childhood and adulthood in modern, industrialized societies is that such societies are incredibly complex. It takes a lot of time for young people to learn the ropes. If we lived in a tiny fishing village someplace, we’d all master the tools and skills we’d need for life by age 17. But in 21st-century America — where confident pundits are constantly declaiming to us, oracle-like, that everyone must now be ready to “retool” and change careers 2,643 times before retirement in order to Meet the Demands of the Fast-Changing Global Economy** — that’s just not the case. It takes a lot of learning to even get to basic competence in a complex society. It makes sense that the period before adulthood would last longer.

But there’s also the sticky matter of whose culture one reintegrates into following the pseudo-initiation rite of college. One function of initiation rites the world over is to bring the young irrevocably into the bounds of the in-group, to anchor them and their commitments to the tribe. In many African societies, initiation rites even alter the initiates’ physical bodies, scarring or tattooing them with unique designs that make it nigh-impossible for them to defect to some other group later on. 

After passing through the inchoate, liminal period at the middle point of the initiation, new initiates are thus generally expected to take on the specific responsibilities and roles that define adulthood in their own, unique culture. Each culture defines adulthood differently, of course, so becoming an initiated Ndembu tribesman isn’t interchangeable with being initiated as a member of the Walbiri tribe of Australia, just as becoming a Jewish bar mitzvah isn’t fungible with having a bishop confirm you as a Catholic. 

This is where the real rub lies with the modern American university system. The U.S. sometimes purports to be a “universal nation,” not beholden to or privileging any particular culture.*** How can we impose any binding expectations for adulthood on our young college graduates, since all such standards would necessarily be culture-bound and parochial? The 21st-century “woke” phenomenon, which sees activists — who are generally very highly educated — increasingly critiquing and even rejecting the teaching of history from a Eurocentric perspective, is, in part, an outgrowth of this logic of universality and centerlessness. 

But regardless of our transcendent humanistic ambitions, the human organism is still fundamentally a cultural one. The anthropologists Rich Sosis and Candace Alcorta have argued that adolescence is an “experience-expectant period” for learning the particular cultural norms and values of one’s own society. Experience expectancy implies that an organism is primed to absorb a particular kind of external input, usually within a given developmental window. Just as late infancy and early childhood are probably experience-expectant periods for learning language, adolescence and early adulthood may be a particularly sensitive period for learning and internalizing culturally particular norms — in a word, for initiation.

That is, the human body — a combination of brain, genes, and flesh — is probably pre-adapted for learning its way around a culture. A particularistic culture. 

If this hypothesis is true, then our current practice of “half-initiating” college kids may be unstable in the long term. A complex society with no initiation rituals may be a shallow attractor in the landscape of cultural possibility. A reversion to the mean would mean once more having rites that reincorporate young people into a particular culture after their initiation.

To take another perspective, initiation rites may be something like “Chesterton’s fence,” the proverbial fence in a field whose purpose no one remembers. Whereas pragmatic moderns might want to tear down the fence if we can’t figure out what it’s for, G.K. Chesterton, a witty traditionalist, retorted that we should only tear down fences if we do know what they’re for. Otherwise we’re risking meddling with things we don’t understand.

If a bio-cultural, functionalist interpretation of initiation rites is accurate, then no matter how “universal” our culture becomes, there’s still that wiring from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, whispering to us that when everything gets taken apart, it ought to get put back together again afterwards. The inverse rite of college — which takes the cultural world apart and then suddenly hustles you out of the kitchen, uncooked ingredients still lying around — doesn’t fit that bill. The result is that we’re living in a world where many of the most influential and important people, our leaders and tech CEOs and researchers and heavyweight journalists, are still stuck two-thirds of the way through their most important transition, running the world without quite knowing where they themselves belong, or who the grownups are.


A few weeks ago, I wrote that, having left academia, I’d be returning to blogging weekly again. That hasn’t happened. I should have said that I’d be returning to weekly blogging again soon — i.e., sometime during the early months of 2021. Right now the need for recovery and recalibration is still strong. Look for weekly blogging sometime this late winter or spring. Meanwhile, I’ll try to be posting semi-regular pieces here slightly more frequently that I was throughout most of 2020.


*Note that I didn’t say that initiations mark the transition to adulthood. No, sir. The word “mark” — whose cognates include the English “march” (borderlands between countries) and the German merken (to notice) — comes from a Germanic root whose meaning centers on geographic boundaries. But the derived verbs, such as merken in modern German or “to mark” in English, all imply a kind of passive observing of facts that already exist somewhere out there in the world. By contrast, initiation rites don’t “mark” the change from boy- or girlhood to adulthood, because there’s no clear physiological change to mark (especially for boys, who don’t have a first menstrual period). Instead, they cause the transition, which is cultural in nature, not biological or hormonal. This is why initiation rites can vary so widely, with some tribes initiating children as young as eight or nine, while others might wait til the youngsters are 20. Really, then, initiation isn’t so much about adulthood as it is about becoming a fully-fledged member of the tribe or clan.

**These pundits have often had the same nice think tank jobs for 25 years.

*** Of course, that’s not really true — the U.S. is clearly an English-descended country, with English political traditions, language, and forms of religion. This rootedness in a particular cultural stream is, like anything, both a boon and a bane. We inherited the expectation of balanced government and rule of law from England, both of which have been great for our country’s extraordinary economic success. But English traditions and norms weren’t exactly compatible with American Indian tribes, and we all know how that turned out. So the big questions about whose culture we our educational institutions should transmit are serious ones that require serious thinking, not merely the fruits of angsty activism.

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