OP-EDS

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January 26, 2010

Shared experience

Students sometimes forget their common goal is collaboration as thinkers

Passing through the final months of my college “experience,” I’ve increasingly been occupied by sudden, solemn meditations on the time I’ve spent here. They spring up spontaneously, taking me back to moments in classrooms and at lunch tables and on apartment fire escapes. Laden with the palpable company of the people and the conversations we’ve had, states of mind and embodied feelings suffusing the scenes with the spirit of the times, they make me ask the big, meta-questions, like “What was it all about?”

The times have changed, as have the people, and while I don’t scorn the faults and foibles shared and made, I know some of them demand correction. After all, college isn’t just an individual journey in which you plot out a personal path and carve out the principles of your cosmogony; it’s an invaluable experience to share in, and hold a stake in a community of learners. You’d think sometimes our University is some kind of incubation tube, hearing folks contrast it with the “real world” out there, that insoluble mixture of freedom and tediousness, boundless opportunity and bottomless unscrupulousness. In our little community, we strive to maintain standards, partly by identifying with the rumored principles and reputations of the place, like its characteristic intellectual rigor, unfettered creative enterprise, and head-to-the-grindstone academic mentality. In a way—harsh winters, imposing architecture, and cool attitudes aside—it’s a remarkably cozy environment, nurturing those rare qualities that wouldn’t flourish in the “real world,” or might just get weeded out. Think of all the bizarre idiosyncrasies, good and bad, and of the feverish passions and impressive accomplishments of the people around you.

There are things to be preserved here, true, but there are things to be changed too. And we shouldn’t be stumped by those preachers of either/or, those bores who pose the old cliché “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” or cynics who tell us our aspirations betray an undue sense of “entitlement.” After all, we are entitled, even summoned, to participate as stewards of the commons and the common good. So once we’ve forked over our family fortunes to pay one of the highest tuition bills in the known world, we still must protect our investment, and the crown jewels of the place are, after all, its intangibles.

The work we share is the time we share, in and out of the classroom, whenever we execute the ritual customs of respectful, highly interested intellectual exchange. We’ve all got our own intellectual baggage and different ways of expressing ourselves, but we share some common sensibilities, and these are the brick-and-mortar of our community edifice.

If we’re sincere and attentive, we can usually tell when someone is expanding the horizons of a conversation, or enriching its depth, and we can equally discern the patterns of a bad argument or a self-indulgent claim. But the whole problem amounts to honesty and the willingness to speak the truth, to deal in darts and laurels, to issue praise where praise is due, and to state our disagreement when it’s called for. It’s not rocket science, and we don’t have the scales of justice in hand, but there’s a common sensibility we come to share here, which helps us transcend our particularities and render reasonable judgments. The less we use it in a good-faith, candid way, the more untenable becomes the conversation, the more forced and dull it feels, the more frayed its members’ spirits. So let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s have respect for one another, but argue.

Behind our community’s exalted reputation for intellectual rigor, there sometimes are surprising anti-intellectual currents, as if we all harbored little Sarah Palins inside of us, nursing sins of personal insecurity, envy, and ignorance. There’s that part of us that wants it to be easy, that looks for shortcuts, that takes things at face value; another part keeps us in our seats, ready to implode with terror at the suggestion we might have it wrong; then there’s that sinister part that turns another’s eloquent words into barbed imprecations. Whatever the nature of the pathos, it’s redolent enough to rear its ugly head with startling regularity, one classroom to the next.

The “that guy” phenomenon might serve as an example. After all, it’s an attribution that’s dealt with the temerity and frequency with which Joe McCarthy unleashed the “communist” label on, well, anyone he didn’t like at the time. And that might be precisely the problem for us. “That guy” might be the one who made a coherent argument, who used apt and pithy words, or drew a pertinent allusion—whatever it took to set us off, to tickle our ego. In any case, the simple fact that muted whispers and pent-up dislike should be more common than clear, forceful disagreement is indeed a grave symptom of a common problem. We might as often substitute “that guy” with that other empty derision, “pretentious,” which usually speaks more of the attitude of the speaker than the character of the person referenced. For if someone were pretentious in the strict sense, if they clothed their lack with a surfeit of affectation, they would be ever so easy—and ever deserving of—correction.

What’s needed these days is to remind ourselves of our common purpose, of our collaborative work as inquisitive minds. The college draws its strength from its diversity, but its majesty comes from an unwillingness to accept mediocrity.

— Marshall Knudson is a fourth-year in the College majoring in anthropology.