I had the delightful duty last week to attend a Luther College orientation session with our youngest daughter. She’s still undecided about what she wants to do with her life and, therefore, where she should go to school to prepare. In one session that my wife and I attended without our daughter, the question was posed to the mostly high school crowd, “What’s the purpose of a college education?” to which several responses were, “To prepare for the real world.”
The students went on to describe the “real world” as a place where moms and dads are not always present to help out or fix things, where you might have to earn your own way and provide for yourself to put food on your table or fuel in your car, or where independence means more than being able to stay out late at night. One student suggested that the real world is a place where you do things for yourself, finally enjoying the freedom earned over eighteen years of perceived servitude. The professor facilitating the session concurred that, yes, all of those things might be apt descriptions of a more real world than the nurtured, protected lives that most of these students live. He paused a good long time, as if he would have welcomed additional perspective on the question, but the topic had apparently become exhausted.
The real world facing these young people goes way beyond what they can imagine today. Their worlds will be turned nearly upside-down as they transition themselves from being children to adults, as they experience the requirement to be collaborative with people and circumstances they might not particularly like, experience the occasionally arbitrary whims of college professors who might demand more than can be delivered, and perhaps for the first time in their lives begin to understand the scarcity of a dollar, how far it must stretch and the importance of the job that generates that cash. They will certainly acquire an entirely new social experience, as the circle of their acquaintance, interaction and influence is broadened. Living in close proximity with previously total strangers is an education unto itself. So, there is certainly a major “leap” facing these young people in the weeks and months ahead as they merge into a more real world.
As the audience moved on to other questions, however, I lingered in my view of the real world. I thought about the issues cited by the students and the way that each young person seemed to reflect both an excitement and a trepidation in facing them. I tried to recall how I might have felt at age eighteen and imagined that these were many of the same issues haunting me as I prepared for college. In my now advanced middle-age, of course, I have a different perspective.
The real world confronting my daughter and her peers today is a much smaller place than the one I stepped into. It’s more immediate, connected, personal and fragile than ever. It’s full of more opportunity and far greater risk. The shadow of a child’s parents is replaced by the shadow of global competition; these students do not simply compete with each other to make a living, they compete with millions of others from around the world for the very same opportunities. The problem of having enough money to put fuel in the car is eclipsed by the questions of whether there is any fuel left at all, and what price has been paid by current and past generations to secure it.
The real world of today poses more strongly than ever the question, what will they do with the poor and the disenfranchised, who become more numerous and needful every day. How do they respond to the notion that soon we will have only two types of people: those who cannot eat and those who cannot sleep. (The first group exists because they have no food. The second group exists because while they have more than enough to eat, they must stay awake at night to protect themselves against those who do not.) In the real world, we are truly all neighbors and our individual well-being is directly linked to the well-being of the all who are around us; the body cannot be healthy if the arm is wounded.
I could have exited the session in a depression, but I felt quite the opposite. If the “real world” is to become a more hospitable place and even survive, it will be because people such as these soon-to-be-college students have come to understand the real scope of the world, its inhabitants, its interconnectedness. And before they have even attended a single class in at least this one place of higher learning, they have been confronted with the question of what truly constitutes the real world. Their views today still may be narrow and self-oriented, as they naturally should be. But through their learning opportunities, technology and today’s instant access to information, they have every chance, like never before, to broaden their understanding and impact. They have every need, like never before, to do so.