By Phillip “Tex” Stewart
One of the most unfortunate components of our generation’s zeitgeist is that most of us have been raised with high expectations but absolutely no guidance, resulting in a fierce drive to “succeed” with only the vaguest idea of what defines success.
As students at an American university, particularly one of Furman’s caliber, no doubt most of those reading this have been inadvertently taught the same thing I was their whole lives: that if you work hard and keep your nose in the books through high school, you’ll get into a good college; and if you repeat those actions there, then you will fall into a great grad school; and after grad school, you can get a job, and if you work hard at that job eventually you can rise to the top of that particular business or company…and then what?
Education expert Sir Ken Robinson has severely critiqued this kind of “factory mentality,” that promises but never delivers any kind of fulfillment, and I hope that someday very soon the system will change. But for those of us who are unfortunate products of this system, where do we stand now once we realize that there must be something else, that this linear progression is not good for us? I commend my peers for their efforts to do the right thing in the face of a cold, daunting “real world;” many of my good friends here are energetically pursuing careers more focused on making the world a better place than on making money, the latter of which many of us see as the chief vice of our parents’ generation.
Unfortunately, the world can be a pretty difficult place to change most of the time. I can’t count the number of articles I’ve encountered over the last few years that smashed my concept of what actually does make the world better. Whether it’s an exposé on substance abuse among Peace Corps volunteers, or yet another sex scandal from some religious leader or other, or a report on corruption, bureaucratic bloat and mismanagement of funds in most NGOs, it often seems that any of these “socially consciousness” organizations are just pursuits of the wind.
Exacerbating this problem is the tremendous pressure placed on those of us who, as Walter Kirnsuccinctly put it, “have shown aptitude for showing aptitude.” If you scored well on standardized tests, or were deemed “above-average” by some equally arbitrary standard, you were probably always assured that you were “gonna go far,” that you were special and had a specific purpose that you just needed to find, and once you did it would all be just perfect. One result of this is a proud mentality that makes us think we are too good for certain jobs; that’s why trade school and apprenticeship enrollments in this country are the lowest they’ve ever been. When I casually mentioned to my mother that I was thinking about going to work on an oil rig to pay off my (quite significant) student debt, she asked me what the point of even going to college was if I was just going to “waste my life in an oil field.” I didn’t have an answer for her. I lose a lot of sleep over my “calling” or “purpose,” and I have seen far too many of my friends sink into deep depression, become apathetic, and in one or two unfortunate cases, temporarily lose cogent mental ability, largely based on their inability to find this single purpose for which they were made.
Our options, from our finite perspectives, seem very limited, and none of the ones we see seem to carry the potential we thought we were promised, that I dare say we feel entitled to. But the most important lesson I have learned from my time at Furman is a certain humility that comes from being constantly surrounded by brilliance. My mentality is changing. As most of the recent graduates of not only Furman but also of universities around the world are discovering, all those things you thought you were promised simply aren’t there…yet. But what each of us can do, rather than worrying about making “the world” a better place, is simply to work towards making our world a better place. If you find a job, be grateful, and give yourself to it completely. Take care of your family and your friends, and the needy in your community. Live simply and sustainably, and encourage and teach others to do likewise. History is not made by kings and rulers as much as your history text would have you believe; it is the movement of the masses that has the power to write the future.