Youth was born in the 1920s. This group of people, for the first time in history, became a separated entity both from adults and children, with its own behaviour, values and social structure.
For this new society group, college was a vital place of development.
As young people became more aware of themselves, upper and upper-middle class parents had more possibility and interest in enrolling their children in colleges.
Colleges exploded in the 1920s both with the number of students and the new kind of life college students lead.
Previous to this era, the main influence on a young person’s life were family, church, and community. People would moved from childhood and school straight on to adulthood, work and social obligations.
In the 1920s for the first time, a change in social behaviour and economical possibilities of families allowed a large section of youths to live a long stretch of time as adult, but without the responsibility of adulthood. For those who went to college, this precious new time, this state of youth, was spent away from family and all the traditional influences, which made them freer to pursue their true desire in the way the saw more fit.
In college, the greatest influence on the single individual was the peer group, with its values and its mores. So it was in college that the youth culture developed as a separate reality and became stronger. It was in college that new behaviours were fully enjoyed, especially in terms of male/female relations, but also in terms of youths’ relation to anyone else. College students had their own language, their own fashion, their own behaviour. It was such a strong and recognizable lifestyle it became known as ‘collegiate style’ and even those who weren’t college students (even those who weren’t young enough to be students) tried to imitate it.
In this contest, the peer group became extremely important. The individual’s behaviour and values were shaped by the group’s behaviour and values and groups would accept or rejects individuals base on their level of adherence to the group’s codes. These codes were of course based on the youths’ new ideals of companionship, sex-appeal, modern behaviour and thinking. College was where the Twenties youths tailored their very own vision of life.
In fact, social life in college was perceived as so vital by students, that it became more important than academic life to them. Many students would sustain that learning to navigate social groups’ life would prepare them to navigate life on a larger scale far better than any academic course could, especially because those academic courses had been created by older people who knew nothing about modern life and its dynamics.
Or course, this wasn’t exactly what parents and teachers thought.
When we think to the iconic youths of the Twenties – the flapper, the sheik, the pleasure-seekers, the party-goer, the rebel – this is what we are actually thinking about: college students.
Rutgers University Libraries – In Search of Youth: The 1920s at New Jersey College for Women
Brown University – Interviews by Decade: 1920s
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977