Rites of Passage
Self-improvement is our culture’s most durable religion
Here in Boston, home to more students than any other city in the world except Tokyo, June is commencement season. Seniors fill the streets in their graduation robes, looking like refugees from a Harry Potter fan club. Their parents seem proud, if also a bit dazed: it seems only yesterday that Junior was asking to borrow the car keys, and now he’s managed the economic equivalent of totaling an SUV for four years in a row.
A college education, like membership at a fitness club, is one of our secular culture’s last remaining religious endeavors. In each place you put your life into the hands of experts who promise that years of expense and effort will deliver new horizons of possibility. In each place you adopt a set of demanding routines that go against the grain of your instinctsas every runner on a treadmill and every student pulling an all-nighter can attest. And while the fitness club can only offer the symbolic baptism of a post-workout shower, college culminates in a final ritual of genuine piety, with robes, solemn ceremonies, and even a sermonmore commonly known as a commencement address.
It is not hard to spot a culture’s godsthey are what people swear by, the stories that need no explanation.
If faith is the substance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, the success of a religious enterprise can be measured in its ability to inspire obedience before it has produced visible results. By this measure, even the most secular university generates a lot of faith. After all, it’s the rare family that contributes well over $100,000 to a church over four years, but most parents would be proud to contribute that amount to their children’s college education.
It is not hard to spot a culture’s godsthey are what people swear by, the stories that need no explanation. Living and working in Boston has given me the opportunity to ask scores of first-year students why they came to [[Harvard College, self-evident appeal of|Harvard]], the academic equivalent of the New Jerusalem. In all but a handful of cases, their answer, delivered with both awe and delight, is “Because I got in.” I’ve asked the same question of students at many other schools, and they almost always answer with a story. They talk about a particularly strong department or sports team, a generous scholarship or a great professor, being close enough to home or just far enough away. But students at Harvard don’t tell these stories. Harvard is its own story, and they’re simply grateful to be part of it. And if you ask students nearly anywhere why they are in college at all, they look just as dumbfounded as their Harvard peers. For the American middle class, college is its own story, self-evident and self-justifying.
I certainly don’t deny the advantages, or the delights, of having a college education. My wife spends her days in the laboratory and the classroom, and some of my happiest times have been spent in libraries, listening in on two millennia’s worth of the scholars’ grand conversation. The Apostle Paul himself studied with one of the greatest teachers of his day, and he had picked up enough Greek culture to know how to give a speech on Athens’s Mars Hill, the Harvard of the ancient world.
But Paul did not come to Mars Hill to join its story; he came to present another and better story. I can’t help wondering whether, for many graduates leaving Boston this month, the scope of their ambitions and the shape of their lives will continue to be determined by where they “get in.” They will buy the biggest house they can afford, send their children to the best schools they can find, and take the highest-paying job they can get (to pay for their children’s college education, of course). It all will make perfect sense, because it all will fit in the only story Americans have left, the only religion in which our culture still believes.
There is another story, though, that can’t be entirely dismissed. In this story, wisdom looks like foolishness (and vice versa), infants have an edge on the educated, and the earth belongs to the meek, not the merit scholars. The one who was last in the class becomes both salutatorian and valedictorian, the one who welcomes us into the feast and the one who bids farewell to the world we thought we knew. He tells a story of a strange banquet whose unexpected guests “get in” through no fault, or merit, of their own. His story, full of upset expectations and undeserved gifts, squares no more easily with the American college dream than a camel squeezes through the eye of a needle. And the outcome of the Class of 2003’s ultimate graduation day will depend on which story they finally decide is true.