It’s never too late

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

This one goes out to the seniors.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of discussing summer experiences with several friends. We shared stories of working in offices, the promises of careers in our respective fields, and the realization that what we did this summer is probably not the work we will be doing after graduation in May.

Yes, graduation. Most seniors balk at mention of the g-word. Some are excited; they cannot wait to move into better and more “adult” parts of their lives. It seems some have even started adult life early. Students are accepting and sometimes working in full-time jobs already, others have gotten engaged or married, a few already have children. It’s incredible what a few minutes perusing Facebook will tell you.

This is not to say that any of these are the only indicators of adulthood. They are just some of the obvious ones. The incredible and perhaps startling realization is that as seniors we are preparing to enter this part of our lives. It might seem like it is too early to talk about these issues—graduation, of course, is more than eight months away. But it is time to start thinking now.

Two weeks ago, Case Western Reserve University experienced a shock that made students begin to realize the sort of gravitas I am proposing. A tragic accident took the lives of four CWRU students on Aug. 25, 2014. In response to that event, Stephen Kolison, another writer here at The Observer wrote a piece about the dark humor in growing up. He wrote, “Life needs to happen because it makes us stronger. Life needs to happen because it makes us human.” This was, of course, in response to a tragedy that awoke the deepest and most empathetic parts of our community. I joined in Kolison’s sentiment, and posited that such a tragic event could be used as an impetus for community building on our campus.

However, there’s even more than that. Kolison’s statement echoes a larger theme in growing up and moving on. In May, college, let alone formalized education, will end for much of the CWRU Class of 2015. Of course some will move on to further education in graduate, medical or law school. Some will decide in 10 years that they want to come back and pursue further education. Even more will make that decision sooner or later. But does graduation, the symbolic act of growing up, make us more human?

On Tuesday, David Brooks published a piece in the New York Times on this same issue. In a pseudo-review of William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” Brooks suggests that the book’s portrayal of college as a growth experience is overplayed. College is not the Aristotelian Lyceum that Deresiewicz expects. Brooks explains this, citing the work of Harvard scholar Steven Pinker. “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul.” Brooks concludes that Pinker and Deresiewicz are not arguing mutually exclusive phenomena. Deresiewicz is positing what college education was. Pinker is simply saying what it is.

What if college education were neither though? What if, instead of being about building the better human, or being the commercial enterprise which Pinker bemoans it to be, college was another rite of passage along the way to becoming human. We actually experience humanity with the choices we make upon graduation?

College is not about making us ready to do a job or launch a career. Even engineers will explain the long hours of on-the-job training and orienting they go through after getting hired. In other disciplines they are less spurious with their “real skills” education. Some, including my own degrees, don’t promise real skills but instead the ability to think, read and speak critically on subjects.

In this way then, college is not the commercial enterprise or the modern Lyceum. Students attend class in order to gain a knowledge base that is hardly useful while still enrolled, and that will only benefit them marginally upon graduation. This is, of course, dependent on your career. The future college professors in the graduating class will disagree with me.

The humanity of growing up—the self-explorative part of becoming an adult—has largely become the goal of post-graduation activities, jobs, training and lifestyle. Some seniors, myself included, worry about the looming spectre of the mortarboard. A common line among students is “I’m not ready to grow up.” In fact though, we are. Everything you’ve done the last four years has led to growing up. We attended college not to grow up but to prepare for it.

Maybe this is why it seems strange that our classmates are approaching adulthood so readily. My first reaction to a classmate’s wedding is not “congratulations” but instead an introspective and silent rendition HAL’s oft-quoted line from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?” Growing up, becoming human, is an after-college adventure. Right now we are simply getting dealt the cards. Maybe we should wait to play them.

Andrew Breland is the Observer’s senior opinion columnist. Contact him at