‘My spirits were divided pathetically between the wish to stay on, a guarded child, and to proceed into the world, a budding man, and, in my utter ignorance, I sought in vain to conjure up what my immediate future would be’ (Edmund Gosse, Father and Son, 1907).
I have written before on the rites of passage that I feel we have mislaid. In some respects, these have been inadequately replaced by the notion that university is a universal coming-of-age ritual that should be available to all. We should be wary of derogating the word ‘university’ to the point where it becomes a mere synonym for ‘party’, for I remain convinced that university is only for the intellectually able, rather than existing simply to boost alcohol tolerance and sexual experience. Still, I understand that the idea of university as a rite of passage has arisen precisely because of the general paucity of other opportunities in this regard. Boys and girls ought to want to grow up, or at least sense that they cannot go on in a puerile state. I am not sure that university fosters the right kind of attitude, but rather provides a space where the ‘spirits… divided pathetically’ are permitted to persist. It is, by all accounts, a space outside of the real world; an extension of adolescence; a not-so-pregnant pause. From this ‘curriculum’ (devoid of its character-building elements of old), why should we expect adults, apparently automatically, to emerge?
Rather, I suppose that some notion of what adulthood is and why it is necessary should be let loose somewhat earlier in life, and that emerging men should be aware of the choices and imperatives in bringing it about. It is no use, so I think, for a child to try to conjure with the future apropos of nothing at all; it is yet worse merely to proceed through life on a pre-determined course. A sense of responsibility, knowledge of the virtues, ingrained good habits and manners, a stout character: these things are to be built. We are not entitled to them, but must shift for them. If we merely wait until graduation ceremonies end before we inform the incipient citizenry of their roles as adults, we shall hardly be surprised if the alumni fail to live up to expectations. If, as I have said before, we are to give credence to the old adage that the child is father to the man, then we must make sure that our children are given a map, a compass, and the sage advice of those experienced in the lay of the land. Left to fumble through the uncharted territory of their adolescence alone, we must not wonder if they fail properly to emerge at the other side.