Two weeks from today, I turn 21. Finally. No more rushing to New Deck to sit down before 8 p.m. No more awkward fumbling for the driver's license that I "accidentally left at home." The government finally says that I'm an adult. And that's just fine with me. I was getting tired of being a kid. Funny thing, though. When my father was 21, he had been an adult for a year or so already. And when my grandfather reached the sacred age, adulthood had been part of his life for nearly four years. In neither case, though, was their new-found maturity related to buying a beer or throwing a few bucks down on the blackjack table. So what made them so different? My father and grandfather, like so many others of the generations, were in the military. And like those thousands of others, they had the (mis)fortune of coming of age at a time when America found itself embroiled in foreign conflict. My grandfather left for the Navy in 1944, and served in the South Pacific as part of the effort to defeat Imperial Japan. My father also joined the Navy -- after a year of college -- and spent the late 1960s training to vanquish an entirely different kind of Asian nemesis. Their growing processes were far more abrupt than the dorm room goodbyes that so many of us see as the ultimate transition to adulthood. And most of them spent their formative years marching, training and preparing for an early showdown with death. I've spent my last few years sleeping late, complaining about midterms and counting down the days to spring break. And they say that we're so sophisticated these days. To say the least, America has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Our generation, in fact, is the first in a century to not have the specter of war hanging closely above our heads. Even if you count the Persian Gulf skirmish that ended 10 years ago this week, most of us can still say that those old institutions are nothing more to us than distant historical relics. We compensate for our freedom by directing our energies and passions in other ways. Most of us haven't learned leadership from a battle-scared drill instructor, after all. We learned it in management class. We rarely have to face the concept of death -- especially when it relates to those we know and care about -- and even less frequently do we have to witness such carnage on the evening news. We just read about it in our history books. And then we sit around the seminar table with our professors, spewing the vault of knowledge we possess on an era that we cannot even pretend to remotely understand. The fact of the matter is that we just aren't as grown up as we think we are. Despite our professional resumes and Ivy League educations, the majority of us are still just little kids acting all grown up. Just think about it. Think about your friend who interviewed for Goldman Sachs at 4:00, then passed out drunk after a drinking contest at 11:00 that night. And think about you're own concept of adulthood. Does the importance of legalized alcohol factor anywhere? A different era may have seen adulthood in a much different light. Maybe we're like this because there's no war to fight -- because we're the lucky (and involuntary, I might add) participants in an era of peace and relative quiet. When I came to Penn, the thought of taking up arms never even remotely entered my mind. And to all but the few dozen students who are members of Penn's Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, the same could probably be said for them. To some of those whose involvement traverses both lifestyles, there's something lost on today's youth. "Today, you have lots of folks heading off to college without even thinking of joining the military," said Marine Corps Col. John Clauer, who commands the Penn NROTC unit. "That may not be so good for the future of America." He isn't the only one echoing such sentiments. Many say that the maturing experience has been lost on our generation, since we generally haven't faced the structure and discipline that confronted our parents. Clauer, though, says it's just a matter of experience. And that experience can come from the military "The people we're getting today [in NROTC] are great young men and women," he said. "But I'm concerned because I don't think that all of the future business and political leaders -- that all of the educators and politicians -- are getting that experience of serving." Without question, America's peaceful growth has been a blessing. Our society has progressed since those bygone days, too -- socially, morally and economically. And there's thankfully little reason for college students today to abandon their studies for a battlefield somewhere. But perhaps, as we progress through the newer, safer growing process, it wouldn't hurt to take a look back once in a while and reflect upon just how much maturing we really have to do.Comments powered by Disqus
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