If the state of the world has you feeling low, visiting a college campus can be good medicine.
Throughout the ages and around the globe, tribal elders have always griped that young people are dumber, lazier, less virtuous than the generation that produced them.
But every trip I’ve made to a university in recent years has put the lie to all that. Invariably, I meet bright, energetic men and women working hard to get ahead. They seem like ideal stewards of the country they’re about to inherit.
My work as a journalist, volunteer mentor or visiting lecturer takes me to higher ed institutions in Louisiana several times a year. Now, as our high school sophomore son starts to explore his own college options, my travels are widening.
We don’t know where he’ll end up, but he’s interested in an academic specialty that could require him to study out of state. It’s why we spent part of his Mardi Gras break at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
A student took us on a tour of campus, her stride brisk, her charm infectious. Beyond the formal tour, we stopped by a campus maker’s space — a volunteer-run workshop, like many across the country, that allows tinkerers to create whatever their brains imagine.
At a workbench, a student was building a clock — for fun. He’d seen some plans on the internet and decided to see how the blueprint squared with reality, and also test how the skill in his hands matched the mind on his shoulders.
Although he had no official duty to host us, the aspiring clock maker set aside his work for a few moments to show us around.
On a lunch hour in late winter, the workshop was full of other makers — young apprentice craftsmen sawing, hammering and nailing not to answer an assignment but to make their dreams real.
Later that day, another student invited our son to visit a robotics workshop just off campus. “Stop by any time,” the student told us. “We’ll be working until midnight.”
Sleeping didn’t seem to be a campus pastime at Georgia Tech. At our hotel near campus, I discovered the night attendant very early one morning sitting in the empty lobby with his textbooks and laptop. He worked the dog shift, studying most of the night before heading to classes each day.
The real question, as I’ve mentioned before, isn’t whether today’s millennials can meet their obligations to us; it’s whether we can meet our obligations to them.
Our drive to Georgia affirmed a basic principle that’s governed civic and economic life for centuries: Build a great center of learning, and young people will travel great distances to engage it. Their energy and ambition can power a local culture and economy like nothing else.
We returned to a state where higher education has been on the chopping block for a generation. That’s one of the reasons I was feeling so low in the first place.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.