An article in Slate magazine recently reported on a phenomenon that I had long suspected was true. Most people remember the events in late adolescence and their early twenties more clearly than any other events in their lives. Researchers call it the reminiscence bump. “A little-known but robust line of research shows that there really is something deeply, weirdly meaningful about this period,” writes Katy Waldman in the Jan. 18 edition of Slate. “It plays an outsize role in how we structure our expectations, stories, and memories. The basic finding is this: We remember more events from late adolescence and early adulthood than from any other stage of our lives.”
Scientists are still trying to ascertain the cause of the reminiscence bump. A leading theory is that our identity formation takes place during this phase of life. Events during these years become “self-defining episodes” for us. A study by scientists Judith Gluck and Susan Bluck found that an event more likely to be remembered for a long period of time has three qualities: “It is joyous. It allows us to exert control. And we perceive it to be highly influential over the course of our lives,” Waldman writes.
If this research is true, our son, Jacob, a high school senior, is moving into the phase of life that he will most remember; the time of life that will form how he defines himself. While I continue to cherish events from his kindergarten and first grade years that Jacob has already forgotten, his college years will be indelibly marked in his mind.
I don’t know if it’s because Jacob goes to a Catholic high school or if it’s because five of the six universities he applied to are Catholic, but it seems that more than half of the marketing materials that fill our mailbox each day come from Catholic colleges and universities. The pages are slick, glossy and sometimes customized. One postcard came with Jacob’s name spelled out in a collage of photos of the college campus. Imagine yourself here was written under his name.
The brochures speak of gorgeous campuses filled with bright students, brilliant professors and incredible extracurricular activities. Even their taglines are inspiring. Preparing people for extraordinary lives (Loyola); Higher Purpose. Greater Good. (St. Louis University); Be the Difference (Marquette).
And while I’m not one to be swept away by photos of regal ivy-covered stone buildings, I can’t help but believe that on their best days, Catholic universities deliver on their lofty promises. Whether or not they’re familiar with the reminiscence bump theory of memory, Catholic universities understand that part of the formation of young adults includes the formation of faith. My best memories from my days at Marquette include retreats, service trips over spring and winter breaks, going to dorm Masses in my slippers and sweats, and protesting the Jesuit university’s failure to divest its holdings in Apartheid South Africa. My own memories of college are, as the study suggests, among the strongest, clearest memories of my life. And as the researchers indicate, my experiences of that phase of life defined me— I was equally defined by both the joyous moments and the ability to make decisions on my own. I want the same for Jacob—not the exact same experiences, of course, but the opportunity to form his faith at the same time as he is forming his identity. It’s hard for me to imagine separating the two.
Yet, I understand enough about the call of God to know that there are many paths that can lead a person where he or she needs to go. If Jacob chooses a university that is not Catholic or Christian, I will watch eagerly to see how God will manifest in that circumstance.
I look back with gratitude at Jacob’s 14 years of Catholic education. From Mrs. Kisslinger’s junior kindergarten prayers before lunch to his senior retreat, Catholic schools have shaped Jacob. His decisions, including this decision about college, are informed by his faith. God goes before him, leading him to the place where his greatest memories will someday live.