I went back to college this week -- or, to be more accurate, back to colleges. For five days I had an intensive course on the generation born circa 1960. I gathered enough material for a thesis on The Communication Gap Between the Sexes, Phase II.
On campuses covered with ivy and lined with palm trees, I met young women who've been encouraged to consider life that will include careers as well as families, aspiring as well as caretaking. I met young women who talk regularly with each other in and out of class about marriages of mutuality, about futures of equality.
But when I asked how often, how easily these same women talked about their ideas and ideals with the men in their lives, I sensed an uneasy quiet.
Gradually, I realized that many of these students maintain a kind of conspiracy of silence with men. They secret away some levels of feelings and hopes until it is "too late," until false expectations are already set.
This silence grows in part from the old female fears -- Can I be ambitious and feminine? Can I be "liberated" and loved? -- that live right below the surface of this change.
Vulnerability and uncertainty, the anxiety about being accepted and acceptable, are most acute in the first years away from home. To many of these students, words like women's rights, equality and surely, feminism are too risky to say in mixed company.
The fear is something they brought with them from home to campus, from childhood to adulthood. After all, most of these 20-year-old daughters of 45-year-old mothers grew up in traditional or transitional, homes.
More than one talked freely about the double messages delivered by parents. One mother still tells her daughter regularly to make a partnership marriage. Yet the mother lives as junior partner with the man who is, after all, the daughter's father.
Another father urges his daughter on to success, a flourishing career. Yet the same man expects and wants service from the woman who is, after all, her mother.
In their families, far more was said about changing roles to daughters than to sons.
Now, in college, too, "women's issues" are still largely a single-sex subject. The classes, the lectures, the guidance sessions are overwhelmingly taught by women to women. Few teachers -- like few parents -- talk with young men about the real lives they will jointly lead.
The job of communicating with men, changing their ideas, again falls onto women. It falls heavily into the middle of all the other issues raised in that emotional world we call a relationship.
The old reluctance of women to share their new aspirations is also founded in the very real, continuing gap between the expectations of men and women.
I know that men have changed in tandem with the times. When Helen and Alexander Astin did their study in incoming freshman in 1971, 52 percent of the men and 31 percent of the women agreed that "the activities of married women are best confined to home." When they asked again last year, only 34.7 percent of the men and 19 percent of the women still agreed with that "confinement."
But a gap between men and women exists even on this easy question. It grows into a chasm as the issues of sharing and partnership become more complicated.
So the new silence has grown out of the old silence. The students, male and female, are the latest victims of two-track talking, two-track teaching.
After my week at school, I wonder what will happen if young women don't learn that they have much more to fear from what they don't say. I wonder what will happen if more campuses don't involve their male students in thinking about lives gauged together, rather than on these separate tracks.
We may graduate a whole new generation, sadly unprepared to live together. We may graduate another crop of men who will be stunned and saddened at middle age to discover that their wives do not, did not, want the life plan they thought was mutual.
Is this pain and disillusionment being nurtured now in the soil of our silence?