College: Today’s State of Nature

In the past week and a half, Intro to Political Theory have sparked some interesting debates over exactly how people would act in a state of nature.  This idea got me thinking: what are humans like if allowed complete freedom? This idea of “complete freedom” is embodied by the state of nature, but it is difficult to imagine.  After all, I certainly have not experienced this state in my 18 years.  However, one example did come to mind: college.

When young adults leave their parents’ homes and move into dorms, they are faced with a completely new world of freedoms and choices.  Where will I eat lunch today?  When will I go to bed?  What will I do this Friday night?  Without the controlling hand of parents, college students live with nearly complete independence.  The University of Iowa’s page on residence halls for parents addresses this idea of developing independence, saying that students will develop a healthy freedom being away from home.  I believe that this freedom nearly matches the perfect freedom in Locke’s states of nature.

John Locke, a prominent state of nature philosopher.

Let’s first look at the thoughts of John Locke, a famous philosopher, regarding the state of nature and people’s actions within it.  Like other state of nature philosophers, Locke believed that people could do what they pleased, but, in contrast to the others, people would be restricted by a higher power.  Furthermore, Locke said the state of nature would not be complete chaos; there could be order, property, and even some rules.  Finally, he said that man is basically self-interested and rational.

College does contain many of the features of Locke’s state of nature.  As previously stated, college students obtain a freedom that is as pure as it gets in modern-day America, but, like Locke believed, our freedoms are limited by a “higher power” and there are rules on what we can and can’t do.  The “higher power” in college students’ lives is past experiences and morals taught through their first 17 years.  For example, although college students could skip class every day and just watch Netflix, most do not because they feel a moral obligation to work hard and become the best they can be.  After all, the whole point of college is to learn and prepare for life after college, so students will most often do the morally correct thing and go to class.

The toe of Harvard’s John Harvard statue is a completely different color due to a student tradition of rubbing it for luck.

College’s rules on what can and can’t be done come both formally and informally.  Formal rules are generally quite clear; the university says that I cannot do certain things, so I don’t.  But informal rules are more difficult to identify.  Some of these informal rules are university-wide social norms, traditions, and rules.  For example, here at Michigan we have our “Don’t Step on the M!” rule.  Other schools have other traditions, like camping out for tickets at Duke or rubbing a statue’s toe for luck at Harvard (here’s a list of some interesting ones).  Most informal rules at college, though, are social norms, like not wearing other colleges’ and high school apparel or not being too loud in dorms at night.

Of course, this analysis is a little of a stretch.  College is does not offer complete freedom; students are still bound by laws of the American government.  Nevertheless, it is interesting that university shares many characteristics with Locke’s state of nature.

-Kyle Butler


3 thoughts on “College: Today’s State of Nature

  1. This is a very interesting comparison. I had never thought to think that what we are living could be more comparable to the state of nature than we think. College is a great example, as you made many valid points about how it fits Locke’s definition. But in going to college students are passed from the jurisdiction of their parents to the jurisdiction of the university (albeit they are very different). Because of this wouldn’t life after college be even closer to Locke’s state of nature? Then the only higher power people are immediately bound to is that of the government and social norms if they choose to bend to them. Still I find your example of college to be very legitimate and may be as close to the state of nature as we can get in our world.


  2. Hi Kyle,
    I really love your comparison between college and a state of nature. I think you are absolutely right that college is similar to the state of nature according to Locke, which is supposed to let people be free and equal. However, I would like to suggest that there are other times in life that we might find them similar to the state of nature as well, such as childhood or after retirement. Take the example of childhood, even though parents are watching over us closely when we are little, we are actually very free and obviously think all kids are equal. We are very self-centered as well, which is essential to state of nature.
    In addition, I think you did a good job identifying the difference between college and the state of nature. With so many embedded social norms or contracts we obey subconsciously, it is really difficult to emulate an actual state of nature.


  3. Hey Kyle,
    Really cool comparison between college and the state of nature. I specifically liked how you mentioned that there is a “higher power” in both societies and I agree that it is influenced by what we have done in the past 17 years. And truly this higher power varies for everyone based on their upbringings.
    But there is one part of your analysis I am a bit confused about. So if college is the state of nature then what happens afterwards? In college at least we have RA’s, teachers, administration and ofcourse the state and federal laws that to some extent restrict what we can / cannot do. But moving forward in the real world those limitations just decrease in some sense? You can really chose to do whatever you want as long as it adheres with laws. So if then the limitations decrease is the real world more of a state of nature than college? I think that’s a point worth looking at.


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