Always in Parables
Rites of Passage
Here in Boston, home to more students than any other city in the world except Tokyo, June is commencement season. Seniors fill the streets in their graduation robes, looking like refugees from a Harry Potter fan club. Their parents seem proud, if also a bit dazed: it seems only yesterday that Junior was asking to borrow the car keys, and now he's managed the economic equivalent of totaling an SUV for four years in a row.
A college education, like membership at a fitness club, is one of our secular culture's last remaining religious endeavors. In each place you put your life into the hands of experts who promise that years of expense and effort will deliver new horizons of possibility. In each place you adopt a set of demanding routines that go against the grain of your instincts—as every runner on a treadmill and every student pulling an all-nighter can attest. And while the fitness club can only offer the symbolic baptism of a post-workout shower, college culminates in a final ritual of genuine piety, with robes, solemn ceremonies, and even a sermon—more commonly known as a commencement address.
If faith is the substance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, the success of a religious enterprise can be measured in its ability to inspire obedience before it has produced visible results. By this measure, even the most secular university generates a lot of faith. After all, it's the rare family that contributes well over $100,000 to a church over four years, but most parents would be proud to contribute that amount to their children's college education.
It is not hard to spot a culture's gods—they are what people swear by, the stories that need no explanation. Living and working in Boston has given me the ...