National Perspective

The Lost Art of Dating

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Meet the dating czar.

She’s Kerry Cronin, the associate director of the Lonergan Institute, a philosophy and theology research center at Boston College, and she’s concerned about your social skills.

She doesn’t think you know how to ask someone out on a date. She doesn’t think you know how to behave on a date. She doesn’t think you know the first thing about listening to your date, sharing your own life story and perspectives with your date, showing empathy to your date. She also doesn’t think you know who pays for your date.

She’s right about all that. She’s right about, well, almost everything.

Social crises come in all shapes and sizes -- the wealth gap, racial bias. Social challenges come in manifold forms -- how to feed, clothe and house the poor, how to pay for medical care. Social awkwardness emerges in many ways -- but none so difficult as The Date.

The governing assumption that Cronin brings to The Date Debate is that the date is not dated. Endangered, maybe. Embarrassing, often. Difficult, always. But not dated. Especially if you haven’t dated.

And almost none of the students she encounters at Boston College have dated -- dated the way, say, their grandparents dated, which is to say asking someone out, picking someone up, planning a nice outing or evening for someone, paying someone else’s way, getting to know someone else. How quaint.

“This is a lost social script,” says Cronin, who for two decades has taught in the great-books program at Boston College but might be best known for teaching BC students how to go on a date. “What’s helpful about teaching people how to date is teaching people social courage, teaching people how to ask someone else who he or she is, listening -- and being listened to.”

This all started when Cronin was teaching a senior capstone class here on this lovely campus just outside Boston. The topic of friendship came up, and then the topic of the hook-up culture came up, and before long the professor was issuing a challenge to the entire class: Go on a date.

The students were flabbergasted.

And then they fussed. They didn’t know when to ask someone on a date. (Anytime.) They didn’t know where to go. (Anywhere.) They didn’t know whom to ask. (Seriously -- was that a problem?)

These were 22-year-olds. In an entire 3 1/2-month period, only one of the 15 seniors mustered the courage to go on a date.

Eventually the barriers fell, and eventually Cronin became a cult figure on campus, if only because cult provides the first four letters of the word “culture,” and she was all about changing the culture on campus, and for the better.

“Dating teaches you how to begin to say things that you really mean, which is on the way to being able to make a promise and keep it,” she says. “And though not all dating leads to a commitment, it is a way to start practicing keeping your word and meaning what you say with your words, your body and your time.”

In recent years, Cronin has taught mostly first-year students, and for them the dating thing is not exactly mandatory. It’s an extra-credit assignment.

“The best part of the assignment is that they come back and talk about the date,” she says. “They talk about how it felt to make themselves vulnerable, about their fears, about how they chose the person to ask. They talk about how hard it was to take a chance. One of the big things for them is what to talk about on the date. What do you ask that is not too personal but still is personal?”

Cronin does not believe in splitting the check. (“You’re treating someone, showing generosity and concern for someone else.”) She does not think that people on a date should look at their iPhones. (“The students are so comfortable behind their screens that the very first rule is that they have to ask their date out in person, not by email or text.”)

The whole point of this is not so much to acquire a life partner as it is to acquire life skills. Listen for a moment to the Dean of Dating:

“You learn a lot about yourself when you try to let someone get to know you. You learn a lot about yourself when you try to let someone become a part of your emotional varsity team. It’s important to let someone in and to let someone become part of your emotional landscape. It also teaches you how to put somebody’s needs and desires maybe ahead of your own, in a healthy way.”

Two of Cronin’s students are part of the documentary film “The Dating Project,” which follows five single people through the dating process and which began appearing in theaters in mid-April.

Documentaries have been made about less vital subjects. So have op-ed columns.

I know: You thought an op-ed column should be about serious topics, social and cultural crises, especially a column written by someone who had so few dates in college himself that he can actually count them -- and thus might be drawn to writing about the crisis in entitlement funding or the midterm congressional elections.

Fair enough. But think about it for a moment. The dating deficit is a serious topic; it grows out of a social and cultural crisis. Besides, you don’t have to read about Donald Trump in every column.

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Gillian Titus, gtitus@amuniversal.com.

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