I was recently asked to give an address at a celebration given for the high school graduates at our church. I offer an edited version of it here for other graduates and those around them.
I thought I might make a list for you of all the big lies you have been told, but I thought it might be better to focus on just one of them: “College is not the real world.”
A sentence like this is typically uttered either by someone who feels insecure about not ever having gone to college or someone confronting the stress of their present life by remembering, or misremembering, college as a time of unlimited, carefree fun.
I hope you never give in to this notion. Going off to spend four (or maybe five or six) of the best years of your life in a fake world would be a tragic waste. The Bible knows this well. In the 29th chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet writes a letter to those Israelites who had been carried off in exile to Babylon. In it he says to them,
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Of course, I am not encouraging 18-year-olds to get married and have children, but to choose to live a real life wherever they find themselves in the fall.
Those who make the claim that college is not the real world fail to understand that all of the worlds in which we exist are constructed. They all operate according to their own rules and procedures, which do not all match the rules and procedures of other worlds. In recent weeks we have seen that the worlds constructed inside military prisons encourage behavior that defies any kind of sense in the worlds we usually inhabit. This should be no surprise. We have known it all along, but we cannot stand to admit it. The ways we construct the worlds we inhabit and how we understand them shape our behavior just as much as our behavior shapes our experience of those worlds.
College is a real world because you will be forming the habits that will govern the rest of your life. At the first meeting of each course you take in college you will be handed a syllabus. People who see the syllabus for my courses often laugh at part of it. Under the section on essays it says this: “All essays should be typed, double-spaced, and in a standard 12 point font with standard margins. They should be printed in black ink on one side of each sheet of paper and the sheets should be attached to each other with one diagonal staple in the upper left-hand corner.”
I include this preposterous statement to make a point. FINISH THE JOB. In every class I have student come on the day their first written assignment is due asking for a stapler. I have no idea how these students have found their way to campus when they are unable to figure out a way to get their paper stapled before coming to class.
Hopefully all of you will some day walk across a stage and receive a diploma that signifies a college degree. But there will be no magic wand waved over you that day which will turn you into a punctual, responsible, dependable and fully engaged human being. The habits you cultivate throughout your college career will be the ones that you will have when you leave. For those of you younger than our graduates, you actually start forming these habits much earlier.
College is a real world because you will experience pain. It will be very important for you to remember that this pain is not fake, and it does not mean that there is something wrong with you. It means you are alive. You will be homesick, broken-hearted and discouraged.
I remember my first semester of college when I went to my mailbox twice a day hoping for letters from family or friends. By my senior year I probably went to my mailbox about once every two or three days hoping that there was nothing in there, so I would not have to deal with it.
You will make similar transitions. Within just a few months you will probably be handed back some written assignment or test in one of your courses and it will have the lowest grade you have ever seen on it. You should encounter teachers who hold you to a higher standard than you have been held before, and this will be difficult and demoralizing.
I was not a religion major when I was an undergraduate student but I did take one Bible course back then. I remember that on the first paper I wrote in that class I made a D. How you respond to the frustration and disappointment of such experiences will shape the course of your life.
College is a real world because some of the decisions you make will matter a great deal. Hopefully you will be in a place that will help you try on various vocational identities until you find the one that fits. Understanding how you fit into this world is the most important question for you to consider in the next few years.
The most detrimental force to higher education in America today is the understanding that reduces higher education to a commercial commodity purchased by consumers (what we sometimes call students) from a manufacturer (what we sometimes call a college or university). Rankings of colleges and universities in magazines now resemble Consumer Reports ratings of toasters and laundry detergents.
Once you have made your decision, forget all this junk and make the world you have chosen your home, not a store where you are purchasing an education. Work hard and play hard in it. Let it hurt you, frustrate you and inspire you. Pay attention and you will find your place in it.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.