Polonius' Wisdom for the Class of '98


This is an unsettling time for parents whose children are zTC getting ready to go away to college for the first time this fall. By now, the invoice for the first semester's tuition has arrived. Especially if the pride and joy is to attend one of the more expensive schools, this bill is for quite a lot of money. There are seven more such bills ahead. The cumulative amount is, well, like awesome, man.

Nationally, the number of graduating high school seniors has dipped, and colleges are competing vigorously for students. Unfortunately, that competition doesn't seem to be producing lower tuitions. In our family's case, a year at college will cost our son, Class of '98, roughly nine times what it cost his father, Class of '62, and 15 times what it cost his grandfather, Class of '36.

It's true, if not especially comforting, that some other costs have increased even more. Consider cars.

For the price of a year's tuition at many private universities today you can buy a nice vehicle, say a top-of-the-line Buick with all the options, or a full-size pickup with four-wheel drive, but you probably can't buy a luxury car. In the early '60s, however, money spent on a year's tuition would have probably bought a Cadillac or a Lincoln. During the Depression it would have been enough for two cars, and maybe a motorcycle, too.

So today when we write that tuition check we can be glad we're not buying a Buick instead, because the impact of inflation would be even greater. There now, don't we feel better?

When children leave for college, parents and other adult well-wishers feel compelled to fill the kids' heads with last-minute advice, just the way they filled their duffel bags with clean underwear and extra toothbrushes. This is a compulsion as old as higher education. The soon-to-be freshmen generally accept the advice and the toothbrushes with equal lack of interest. It makes little difference if the advice is good or bad, because they probably won't listen to it anyway, at least right now.

What Polonius says to Hamlet is sensible enough, wise if windy talk from a well-meaning old man, but it's the right lecture at the wrong time. Don't be a borrower or a lender, says Polonius. Value true friends. Don't pick fights, dress tastelessly or run your mouth when you don't know what you're talking about.

Even reading the passage, you can imagine Hamlet rolling his eyes. The young prince knew, even if no one else did, that he wasn't heading off to college after all. He had other things on his mind. If Polonius had added that it isn't good form to murder one's uncle he might have gotten Hamlet's attention, but he didn't.

Year after year and generation after generation, Polonius-like, parents offer earnest and sound, but badly-timed, advice to their college-bound offspring. And year after year, generation after generation, the children ignore it. In the spirit of this ritual, here's some advice for members of the Class of '98. At their pleasure, it can be folded, spindled, mutilated or stuffed into the duffel bags for future reference.

Soon, many self-assured people you've never seen before will be talking to you. Some of what they have to say will be true, and some will be hogwash. In most cases you'll instinctively know which is which, so be prepared to trust your instincts. They're your first line of defense.

You needn't dispute every assertion you doubt. That would be exhausting, and obnoxious too. Civility can't compromise your independence. But at the same time you'll need to cling with determination to your right to make up your own mind -- no matter who's offering to do it for you.

Be especially suspicious of efforts to turn you away from your families, your friends and your communities. These probably aren't perfect, and many of you will eventually decide to leave them behind anyway in the hope of finding something better. But don't cede that decision to anyone else.

Many groups will try to recruit you as a member. This will flatter you. But remember that groups which can't continuously attract new members soon shrivel and die. They want you and need you, but it's usually in the way a starving man wants and needs a ham sandwich. It has to do with their survival, not yours.

Be wary of the argument that there should be different rules for different people. This is not in your long-term interest, whatever your gender or color. If the law can be bent to empower you today at someone else's expense, it can just as readily be used as a weapon to cripple you for someone else's benefit tomorrow.

College is over in a wink; enjoy it while it lasts. Help others. Expect success but prepare for failure. Floss daily. Always fasten your seat belt. Oh yes, and remember not to murder your uncle, especially if he's the King of Denmark.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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