Our daughter is starting college this year, and the other day we drove her and a vanload of miscellaneous used furniture and housewares to her new apartment in Beersheba. Having lived through the American college process myself, and then experienced it as a high school principal for middle class Jewish kids, it is hard for me to get used to the experience here, which is so different.
No essay, no interview, no alumni representatives, no need to accumulate an impressive list of extracurricular activities and honors. You simply enter your final 12th grade average, your average score on the matriculation (end-of-high-school achievement) exams, and your score on the psychotechnical exam (an aptitude test) into a formula, and compare the resulting number to the chart published by each department in each university, showing the admission cutoff score. Thus, you can figure out whether you will be accepted without waiting for an envelope to arrive on April 15.
Forget liberal arts. You must be accepted by the department in which you plan to major. There are minimal distribution requirements outside your major. A BA takes three years.
Perhaps the main difference: university study is not the immediate continuation of high school. It is not the students first experience living away from home. The university does not see itself in loco parentis. Boys arrive after at least three years in the army - and often an additional year or more traveling and/or working; our daughter, who is fairly typical, comes to the college experience four years after graduating high school - two years of army service and two years working, studying, and traveling in Europe. Students are adults, often in a hurry to get on with careers and lives, not looking for a moratorium, often not even interested in enrichment or broadening. The university does not address mail to the parents, but to the student. There is no orientation week - or day. It is up to the student to read all the fine print, fill out the registration form, pay tuition at the bank, and find housing.
And so, the university community feels very different from an American campus; and taking our daughter to college felt very different from the experience we remember. Not a rite of passage, but merely an adventure in moving. In a way, therefore, the trip was a kind of disappointment; when your kid has already been living independently in her own apartment thousands of mile away for a couple of years, and when the university couldnt care less about your involvement, there is something anticlimactic about the sending off. Here, I guess, the rite of passage for most kids happens at the induction center, when their names are called on the loudpeaker to board the bus to basic training, and all the parents and siblings and friends crowd around the buses, waving and crying and joking until they pull away. Weve experienced the identical scene three times. By the time they get to college, the innocence of adolescence is far behind them, and they have seen the world and faced dilemmas and made decisions that will give them true insights into the classics of literature they will be reading in college (if they happen to major in literature and not, say, biology).
There is a price, of course, for everything. There is something to be said for associating the excitement of new-found independence with the intellectual challenge of university, so that ones personal growth is integrated with intellectual growth. But there is also a case to be made for not wasting college on kids, who are so busy growing up that they miss a lot of the deep content. Serious grappling with ideas, dedication to disciplines, connecting learning with life - these are projects for adults.
And so, much as nostalgia makes me feel that something has been lost, at the same time I envy my daughter the privilege of diving into university study as a grownup. And grownup or not, shell be home on weekends with a sack of dirty laundry...