Send your teens away - for their own enlightenment

Posted: April 10, 2014

A few springs ago, I spoke at a graduation event for a Delaware County high school honor society, a group of smart, engaged students headed to terrific institutions of higher learning, public and private, affordable and not even close.

Almost every institution was located in Pennsylvania. Exotic turned out to be Delaware.

This reminded me of an acquaintance who was distraught that her daughter was going so far away to school. Where? "Maryland," she moaned, as if the child were relocating to Guam.

A college education is much more than what occurs in the classroom. Knowledge can be acquired on the field, the cafeteria, the streets of a temporary hometown, and, for better or less-sober, the dorm.

Pennsylvanians, as I've argued before, need to get the heck out of Dodge, at least for a while and especially when they're young, before their expectations harden.

The state ranks fourth in native-born residents. Four out of five native Pennsylvanians will die here, having rarely traveled far for long. Too many residents, especially politicians and civic leaders, have never lived anywhere else, barely changing counties. No wonder they don't know better. Ed Rendell's most admirable quality may well be his imported Manhattan moxie to dream bigger and better for our city and state.

If a young person can afford to, and the opportunity is there, seek enlightenment elsewhere. Become a little less comfortable, and embrace the new. Your senses are more attuned when you travel, your eyes more open when you engage with the unfamiliar.

Our parents encouraged us to leave, to take geographic risks. We recently gathered for a family wedding, and seven cities were represented. We may be the airlines' best friend.

I attended college 700 miles from home, a time zone and a world away. My mother forbade me to venture west of the Mississippi, but I got pretty close. Raised in Washington - possibly the most provincial city in America - I moved to Chicago, the hometown she left as soon as she was able and another insular world. Cities can be brutal that way.

East Coast friends sneered at the Midwest as flyover territory, the move as some sort of punishment. But Chicago is a real city, as American as they get, with some serious politics, culture, and, back then, far better food. By comparison, D.C. seemed a cow town.

My college classmates proved a diverse group, arriving from all over the country, their varied backgrounds an enlightenment: children of Holocaust survivors, Czech cops, Greek chefs, and, a bonus, my roommate the younger sister of a prodigious rock-star groupie. I learned fast about different Americas and tossed a mass of assumptions out the dorm window for good.

But be careful what you preach. Our son attends college in Colorado. His cross-country team travels to New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Kansas, again an additional education, parts of the nation he might never have seen. When he complained about going to Yankton, S.D. - by bus, no less - I was delighted that he visited the historic former capital of the Dakota Territory, where the murderer of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood was tried. How many college students can say that?

Now our utterly urban daughter, accepted at schools two and four hours away, seems bound for college in rural Ohio. I never expected to have both children so far away, an hour from airports with direct flights, near cities where we know no one. Being a travel agent was not in the game plan, while the empty nest seems severely overrated.

But, again, I think her choice is a great one, inspired, and the opportunities splendid. Our daughter is going to experience a new part of the country and a pastoral life foreign to what she knows.

We encouraged our children to be bold, to take risks, to move beyond the familiar, as long as they occasionally return home. Like all parents, we thought they weren't listening. They were listening all along.

kheller@phillynews.com215-854-2586 @kheller

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