Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison
While here, they'll fall in and out of love with each other, and I hope they'll develop a lifelong crush on Madison.
For about 6,000 eighteen-year-olds, the boot camp of adulthood has just started.
Right now and over the course of the next few weeks, University of Wisconsin freshmen are experiencing true independence for the first time -- with all the exhilarating and terrifying things that go with it. They're forming relationships that many will have for the rest of their lives. Some are meeting future spouses, bridesmaids, groomsmen, business partners, and best friends. If they're lucky, they will deliver eulogies for some of these people, but not for another eight decades or so.
And, over the course of the next four years, if the university does its job and they do theirs, they'll question everything. Their faith should be tested. Their political beliefs should be challenged, or if they don't have any now some should be formed. They should question the lifestyles they experienced at home and experiment with new ones here. They should question authority. They should question those without authority about why they don't have any. They should question their professors and their parents and their bartenders (later) and the janitors in their dorms. They should make themselves annoying with their questions.
After all their most cherished beliefs and assumptions have been torn apart, they can put them back together and rearrange them in ways that make sense to them. They need to get this right over the next forty-eight months because they won't get much of a chance at a do-over. They'll be too busy driving between soccer practice and the dentist to think about this stuff ever again.
They should find friends they can trust and sort out the ones they can't. They should find professors and mentors they respect and discover why they don't respect the ones who haven't earned it.
They should pick a major. Then drop that one and choose another. Then they should decide to do something else. Anyone who hasn't switched majors at least twice isn't giving life any thought at all.
We might not like to admit it, but most of them will probably drink too much once in awhile and sleep with the wrong people. They'll take jobs they hate just to earn some money and intern in jobs they love just to get the experience. They'll live in ratty old apartments and get ripped off by mercenary landlords. (Although there's less of that these days. That's too bad. Being taken advantage of at a young age and not being able to do much about it makes you more discerning as an older person and maybe less willing do the same to someone younger.)
If they're lucky, their parents will mostly leave them alone, leave them, as the Dixie Chicks so aptly put it, "room enough to make the big mistakes." The last thing either a student or professor needs is parents who intervene for their children. If a student doesn't like their grade, they should show up in my office and tell me why. Groveling builds character.
They should be forced to write a lot. Get it handed back to them covered in red ink. Then write it again until they can communicate clearly and with economy of words. (Those who want examples of how to do it wrong have come to the right blog.)
They should be forced to speak before their peers. Use good posture and proper grammar when doing so and not mumble. Get used to looking people in the eye and projecting their voice! Most importantly they should follow FDR's advice to "be relevant, be brief, be seated."
They should learn that nothing they have to say is all that interesting to anyone else just because they're saying it. They need to earn an ear by having an intelligent thought that they can express in a way that makes it compelling.
Along those lines, they need to learn that they are not the most special beings on the planet, and that everything they do is not wonderful. Someone said this at a commencement address last spring and it quickly went viral as if this was a startling revelation. So you see the problem here.
If they're like I was, once in awhile this university will make them feel like chattel. This was the whole point of registration week (in addition to the parties). I hope the UW has found other ways to make students feel like a number. This will prepare them to be a customer of a major airline.
They need to learn to work in groups, to be a good team player, to not hog the spotlight, to help the weakest members of the team, to get along with blowhards and fools, to keep their mouth shut when they just have to tell everybody the right answer, to understand that just when they think they're always the smartest person in the room they discover that the truly smartest person in the room doesn't feel the same way.
They should learn not to go to the Memorial Union Rathskeller or Terrace on open mic night. Those who don't understand this advice have never been there on open mic night.
While at the Union they should learn to play the ancient German card game Sheepshead. If they already know it -- chances are they're from Milwaukee or Sheboygan -- they should share the secrets with others but under no circumstances should they ever play the jack of diamonds five-handed game. Outlawing that within the city limits might have been my proudest third term accomplishment. It's the only reason I would even consider ever returning to office.
After all this, they should leave feeling like they know less than when they showed up, much less confident that they're right about anything, but hungry to learn more about everything and open to wherever that takes them. We live in a country with increasing numbers of people who are strong and steadfast in their beliefs. I wish we lived in a country where we thought the other guy just might have a point now and then.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed historian Bill Cronon for a story I'm doing in Isthmus. He told me that he felt his job as a professor was to make his students "fall in love with the world."
While here, they'll fall in and out of love with each other, and I hope they'll develop a lifelong crush on Madison. And, if all goes as it should, Cronon will be right and for the rest of their lives the world will be full of mystery and incalculable wonder and, for that matter, a place to wander.
Next time you look at a pile of old furniture on a downtown terrace, think about what that represents and where that couch has been. Okay, maybe don't think about it too hard. But remember what it was like to be eighteen and on your own for the first time and to have all of your life ahead of you in a place as magical as Madison.