By now the annual academic harvest is nearly over. The black robes have been returned to the rental companies. The clarions used to call seniors have been hung up for another year.
Soon, the last of the new crop of graduates will be gathered in. The long winding procession of hundreds of thousands of men and women, all decked out in commencement clothes, will have moved over that border from the academic world to the "real world."
For as long as I can remember, adults have made a sharp distinction between undergraduate and postgraduate life. We have thought of college students as young people planted in a secure but distant place called academia. At times we believed that their concerns were as unrelated to ours as sanskrit is to accounting. We have called our own world the "real" one.
Yet having watched two commencements last week, seen two groups of students emerge from their black husks as fully certified graduates, the line that separates their lives from ours doesn't seem so solid anymore. This generation of young people has had to operate under remarkable stress. They are less like we were at their age and more like we are now.
When we were graduated from colleges two decades ago, there was a place for us in the world. We assumed that we would be welcomed into the adult community.
Ours were not the good old days, but there was a sense that if you followed a predictable course, you would be eligible for predictable rewards. There were ladders to be climbed, and anyone coming out of college had already gotten a few rungs up on the rest.
It's not the same for this generation. The degrees that I saw awarded last week cost $40,000 apiece. But no guarantees came with the pricey diplomas. These seniors didn't go to college to become upwardly mobile, but as a defense against downward mobility.
On their way to commencement, they heard the advice of their elders in stereophonic sound. In one ear, there were concerned parents talking about tangible results, rewards for the educational "investment." In the other ear, there were concerned teachers trying to encourage them to pursue some unquantifiable love of learning.
If their heads were full of mixed messages about their own futures, they were equally uneasy about the future. According to the polls, most of them, like most of us, believe a nuclear war is likely to occur in the next decade.
Surely they aren't the first generation to live with the bomb. In the '50s we were led into the school bomb shelters and taught how to "duck and cover" if a mushroom cloud appeared over the horizon. We had our own nuclear nightmares.
But we also had a greater measure of faith in authority. Even our naivet,e served the purposes of a comfortable youth. Today's college generation is far more cynical about the notion of nuclear-age national "security."
This crop had clearly been raised in less-settled weather. What they were asked to do isn't easy: to go for the degree in the midst of doubts about its value. To plan for the future in the midst of doubts about its reality. To create their own lives, their own sense of purpose, their own plans without the guideposts, the predictable rewards.
Yet, in an odd way, it has been pretty good preparation for postgraduate life. The fact is that out here, in "the real world," we, too, have learned to function in the midst of doubt.
In the real world we, too, have learned to go through life adjusting and readjusting the course, questioning its values and our value. We have learned--or tried to learn--how to balance instant gratification with postponement, fun with work, the short run with the long run. We have learned to resist the paralysis that can come with ambivalence.
Today's commencement is less and less of a demarcation line between childhood and adulthood. Today's undergraduates, graduates and postgraduates sound more and more alike. I guess we are sharing "the real world."