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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Idealism and realism

We need college students. They are important to our society. Sure, we need them because in future years they will be taking on the role of leading and managing our society. But we need them now before they take on a significant role in leadership, social infrastructure and the economy, as they will in the future.

Here’s why we need them now. We need their (I know it’s cliché) youthful idealism. Society needs their extreme opinions, their firmly held positions on the so-called right and on the so-called left. We need them to be isolated, to some degree, in the university. We need them to be financially, socially and philosophically isolated. See, when they’re isolated they can view and talk about the world idealistically (instead of realistically). They’re able to push the boundaries and call themselves and others to radical stances and actions.

We need these calls from the edges, these opinions from the margins. They keep the rest of us honest. They remind us that what we’ve come to expect, and what we experience as normal, might not be right.

We do, of course, experience personal and systemic shock whenever the idealistic meets the realistic. It’s a shock when idealistic vegetarianism discovered in college meets grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a shock when idealistic religious expression discovered in seminary meets a real parish full of real people. It’s a shock when an idealistic political position meets the real world necessity for compromise, or at least civility.

In this shock, though, is where society has the opportunity to grow. The trouble enters in when those who are more grounded in the status quo don’t listen to the idealists. If it weren’t for some who were willing to listen to wisdom from the fringes, we’d still have institutionalized slavery based on skin color and women’s second-class status would be legal (to name two of the most obvious examples). And if it weren’t for those on the fringes who are willing to listen to wisdom from the center of society, we’d either all be vegetarian or there would be oil wells drilled on every other square mile across the country.

The middle needs the fringes (especially those fringes we don’t agree with) who push us to be better. And the fringes need the middle to keep us sane and civil, and to remind us that we’re all in this together.

This is what’s missing in our national political conversation these days: the fringes aren’t willing to listen to wisdom from the center, and the center isn’t willing to stand up for what’s actually helpful.


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September issue

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