Dean’s Series, Part 3: College and “Real Life”

The best way to handle false dichotomies is to expose them, and then to harmonize them.  The first is hard enough; the second can take decades.  I’m admittedly in the beginning stages of my own journey of understanding and living these things well, but I’m hopeful that a few on-the-go reflections can at least function as a springboard for more thought.  The first four false dichotomies I addressed were more focused on The Master’s College subculture, but they’re certainly sensible and applicable within the framework of life in general.

(1) College and “Real Life”

Over the years I’ve heard many students dramatically expose this deep, earthshaking secret:  College is not “real life.”  There are several forms of the argument, and the ones I’ve heard are typically TMC-specific, but it usually goes something like this: “Dude, TMC isn’t real life.  We live in a spiritual Disneyland.  We live in a bubble.”  I’ve heard this argument, I’ve made this argument, I’ve thought about this argument, and I’ve tried both to shatter and shape this argument for the last ten years.

It is true in many ways, and it is very important to recognize.  Yet it’s not exactly a groundbreaking discovery.  It’s a pretty basic, evident observation that every generation of students has made (some more loudly than others).  For instance, at The Master’s College, it’s hard not to notice that we all (explicitly or implicitly) profess to be Christians, that we’re pretty tight-knit theologically, that the student body (always) belongs to the same generation, that the students live with their own gender, and that we reside in a little canyon in the Los Angeles metro area with an Old Western ranch, a horsetrail, and a creek-bed.  Yes, we live in a bubble of sorts, and bubbles aren’t “real life.”  Every educational organization fosters a subculture, and that subculture is always different than life “out there.”

But drawing a hard line in the sand between TMC and “real life” and demanding that we choose one or the other presents a false dichotomy.  Yes, preparatory institutions are unique communities, but are they actually unreal?  Are they paranormal?  Are they quasi-realities?  I don’t think so.  I have found sin, suffering, and Satan to be real here.  I have seen real bondage and real freedom, real desperation and real deliverance, real backsliding and real growth, real tragedies and real celebrations, real conflict and real friendship, real shame and real honor.  This is real.

So when we get frustrated because any particular stage of preparation (along with the incubating subculture that comes with it) isn’t “real life,” we are right in one important sense but dangerously wrong in another.  So how should we think about the stereotypical distinction between preparation and the “real life” of which many of us speak (and for which so many of us passionately yet ignorantly long)?  I would offer three main encouragements about how to view the Christian higher educational “bubble” when you’re in it.

  1. Don’t worship the bubble.  Those of you for whom the preparatory season is a joy and refreshment should enjoy it and soak it up, but know that it’s meant to prepare you for the rest of life, not function as the rest of life.  It’s a greenhouse, not a garden.  If you really think that the rest of life is just like this (or supposed to be just like this), you’re in for a big surprise.  And you will likely be less prepared when it comes.
  2. Don’t hate the bubble.  For those of you who are frustrated by the seemingly isolated bubble of Christian higher education, I heartily agree with you on this:  There are significant weaknesses that are promoted by life in the bubble.  It has its limitations.  And some are serious.  So put priorities in place (like sincere friendships with unbelievers, genuine interaction with differing viewpoints, extended times to reflect and meditate, regular time off-campus) that will combat these weaknesses.  But don’t waste your time (and others’) by incessantly bemoaning the fact that it’s a bubble and relentlessly criticizing every aspect that you don’t appreciate.
  3. Take advantage of the bubble.  Recognize, evaluate, appreciate, critique, and benefit from the bubble.  Appreciate and happily enjoy its strengths and blessings.  Evaluate and humbly critique its weaknesses and limitations.  Call it what it is.  And then live well in it by taking advantage of it.

Educational environments are meant to train you for “real life.”  Yes, the standard Western model of higher education is imperfect and lopsided.  It lacks the major element of experiential learning — the apprenticeship model.  Likewise, TMC is can be fairly monolithic theologically, culturally, and ethnically (some expressions of this narrow subculture can be positive; others are obviously negative).  But it is what it is.  While we wait and work for reform, we must make the most of what we’ve been given.

Boot camp is a bubble.  The classroom, by definition, is a controlled environment.  Practice and preparation, by their very nature, are not “real” (in one sense of the word).  But in another sense, they are the most real thing you have right now, because this is where you live.  This, for now, is your life.  So don’t disparage it.  Take advantage of it.

The best performers are the best practicers.  The best presenters are the best preparers.  The best competitors are the best conditioned.  The best soldiers are the best boot-campers.  Those who are diligent in private are influential in public.

The best performers are not those who sit on the piano bench in the practice room secretly listening to random shuffles on their iPods and complaining about how monotonous the practice is and how they’re wasting their time.  The best soldiers are not those who hold back in boot camp and sit on their bunks every night complaining to their fellow 18-year-olds about how frustrated they are with the exercises and the evolutions and the conditioning.  And the best competitors are not those who lolly-gag around in practice and defend their apathy by half-heartedly telling the guys around them, “Take it easy, guys — this isn’t a real game.”

Why does everyone love Rudy?  Because he’s this little runt of a human being with the heart of a lion who has that gritty, no-holds-barred determination to go all-out in everything he does — the kind of determination that echoes in every human soul.  And where is this determination most clearly displayed?  Practice.

Coach Ara Parseghian:  “What’s your problem, O’Hara, what’s your problem?”
Player Jamie O’Hara:  “Last practice of the season and [Ruettiger] thinks it’s the Super Bowl!”
Coach Ara Parseghian:  “You just summed up your entire sorry career here in one sentence!  If you had a tenth of the heart of Ruettiger, you’d have made All-American by now!  As it is, you just went from third team to the prep team!  Get outta here!”

Funny how it’s often the third-teamers that make excuses for their own lack of effort, their own unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them, their own short-sightedness as they diminish practice by comparing it to the Super Bowl.  And funny how it’s those who approach practices and playoffs with the exact same intensity who end up inspiring us, moving us, and accomplishing things.

Solomon knew better than to think that preparation wasn’t “real.”  He wrote, “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4).  Paul knew better, too:  “Whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).  Preparation is real.  Training is real.  It’s a different kind of “real,” but it’s real nonetheless.  So embrace it.  Engage in it.

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