Commencement of What?

Almost as long as America has had universities, it has had the idea that those universities were ivory towers, Forests of Arden, places where young people went to spend their formative years and develop healthy American ideas. It has seen college life as an existence protected from the harsh facts of economic reality, a place where wild oats could be sown, reaped, trampled on, or uprooted without any effect on society as a whole.

After all, what more indication of the womb-like nature of college is needed than the behavior of an alumnus returning for a reunion? He tries to abandon for a week or so all his "responsibilities," to immerse himself in an ivied atmosphere where comfortable memories subsist in every cranny.

But it is precisely the inability of the alumnus to don his feelings of twenty or thirty years before that indicates there may be a fallacy in this whole line of reasoning. If the collegiate attitude were the easy, the natural, the carefree one, the alumnus should be able to recover it with the aid of some old cronies and a good stiff drink. He usually finds his cronies, and almost always takes a drink or two, but the spark isn't there.

For the "collegiate attitude" not only cannot be acquired with ease, but perishes unless it is scrpulously cared for. It is preserved for four years by a delicate interplay of influences, not forces, which serve to keep the mind in a shifting, uncertain, unsatiated, insatiable condition called "education." This condition creates a great deal of pain and conflict; some people refuse to submit to it at all, and many more flee from it at various stages.

Every college has its complement of social and intellectual refugees who hide behind their clubs or their esotery of their cynicism and thumb down their noses at the influences that would make them educated. In a sense, these people are better prepared for the "realities of life" than their educated classmates, for the world in which they will assume responsibilities and make effective decisions puts a premium on absolutes of belief and action that often conflict with the educated attitude.

Professor Ralph Barton Perry told the members of Phi Beta Kappa this week that it is far easier to get educated than to stay educated. That is the challenge of commencement in a capsule. This year's graduates, like every year's, will be urged to remake the world that their ancestors have mangled, to preserve freedom, to learn to make decisions, and to be good citizens. Most of them will do these things automatically, according to their own beliefs and abilities, because these are the prescribed things to do.

What they will not do automatically is to maintain their educated attitude. They will be attracted by the lures of responsibility and definiteness, and they will be pushed by dogma and by disparagement of the indecisiveness -- "fuzzy-mindedness" -- with which college impregnated them. They will confront economic and political realities and close their senses to intellectual realities. They will preserve the symbols of education while destroying the essence, and then wonder why they cannot regain their former flexibility of thought.

For those who do not care particularly whether they keep or lose their education, society has devised an infinite variety of institutions--prejudices, allegiances, moralities--to help them lose it. Those who stay educated will not be able to lead a particularly restful life, and they will almost certainly be a small minority, but they will have the satisfaction of making the best possible use of their formal education.