Learning to Make a Difference

As I begin this post, my wife and I have just dropped off our third and youngest child for his freshman year of college, and we are beginning the long trip home -- or to wherever it is we are headed.

Leaving your youngest child at college is a hugely melancholy act. We are excited, knowing what great experiences await him over the next four years. Tempering that excitement is the knowledge that he will have most of those experiences without us -- and that unless my wife has a fourth child squirreled away, my days of being an annoying daily presence in a young person's life are over. That said, my self-esteem should rise, as there is no one left in the house to beat my brains out in SCRABBLE, run me ragged playing one-on-one, or correct my numerous mis-statements of facts.

It has become a family tradition -- at least in my own mind, which is where too many of our family traditions reside -- to write each of my kids a thoughtful letter (one part instructive, one part exculpatory and one part sentimental) which I deliver during the freshman move-in. It is, I suppose, my last chance to imprint on them before we turn over the keys to their life. Before I leave I stick it in his backpack, and then wonder whether he'd prefer an energy bar instead.

Freshman year is thrilling: perhaps the most special year in a young adult's life. It is a year when our children begin a fundamental reformulation of their relationship with the world as they head down the road to independence. And I suppose this time, with our youngest leaving the nest, it will prove to be the year when my wife and I begin reformulating our relationship with each other and with the world as we head down the road to elder statesmanship (or an extended care facility, whichever comes first).

Future Shock?

Our youngest is at school at Davidson College in North Carolina, a relatively undiscovered gem of a liberal arts college nestled in a Rockwell-esque village with a strong academic tradition and high performance standards, a firmly entrenched and closely observed honor code, a serious commitment to service, a global perspective and a highly competitive D-1 basketball program -- all of which are strong family values for us.

I can't imagine a better place to go to school, or a better launching pad for the journey to becoming an accountable, contributing, caring, honorable adult. Still, as I think about my son -- and the two million plus other young people starting college this year in the U.S. -- I can't help but wonder what the world holds in store for him and whether the brilliant, well-rounded education he is about to receive will suffice.

On the way home, I catch up on the newspapers I ignored as we dutifully executed our parental leave-taking responsibilities. It was not exactly an uplifting read: from the debate over Iran's nuclear intentions and what should be done about them to a new report suggesting the massive Gulf oil spill is not breaking down as rapidly as once thought. And that's just the front page above the fold. I know every generation faces its own challenges, but there is a magnitude and lethality to today's issues that troubles me.

A Parent's Wish

Of course, the world has always had its urgent challenges -- and each life, its trials and tribulations. That was certainly true when my parents dropped me off at college 40 years ago this week.

It's hard to imagine what the world will look like another 40 years from now. Will humankind be thriving, getting by, or overwhelmed by hunger or poverty or the spread of disease or climate change or illiteracy or failing infrastructure or extremism or maybe even (as Hollywood is fond of speculating) by a runaway asteroid?

Soon enough, the torch will pass from the Boomers to our children (granted, it will probably have to be pried from our hands). So how should our children prepare for the road ahead, and what should the college experience be offering them? On this question, I find the words of Albert Einstein -- arguably the most brilliant mind of the 20th century and an under-appreciated humanitarian -- particularly instructive. "Imagination is more important than knowledge," Einstein wrote, "for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world." Hold that thought and consider it alongside these words, also authored by Einstein: "The value of a man should be seen in what he gives and not in what he is able to receive."

Book learning and lab time are, of course, critical, but Einstein and I believe they are most beneficial and best applied when they are accompanied by a keen sense of inquiry, an expansive world-view, and a genuine commitment to community and to helping others. Four years from now (and hopefully just four years) we hope our son emerges self-assured and self-aware, with a sense of opportunity and one of obligation -- and with the imagination to make a difference

Finally, there's this thought. For the last year or so, these kids, the class of 2014, have been measured, ranked and evaluated to an extraordinary degree by GPAs and standardized test scores. Thankfully, those days are gone. Now it's their passion, integrity, ability to imagine, and the size of their heart that matters most. I think they will do fine.