The limit does exist
I don’t usually use my precious blogging space to respond specifically to something another person has written, much less something in TEH SPECZ. But the recent thoughtful plea by Sam Roth—“Big Sam,” as we called him in my former days on the Editorial Board—for less self-aggrandizement and more humility and kindness on this campus tapped into such a widely shared concern that it demands more engagement.
Big Sam’s central contention is that, despite the positive energy created by Random Acts of Kindness, “what we really need are Systematic Acts of Kindness.” This claim is hard to deny, and its urgency should be clear to us all. How might we begin to instill a culture of modesty and compassion on a larger scale at this school?
To have any chance of combating our self-aggrandizement, we need more thorough and critical examination of our privilege. The isolating sense of “exceptionalism” that Big Sam put his finger on stems not only from the success Columbia students had in high school, but also from the undeniably privileged backgrounds that many of us (Big Sam and I included) call home.
A truthful, soul-searching recognition of the intersecting ways in which our privilege has enabled our success should make us wary of giving too much credit to the attractive idea of personal merit. Big Sam was dead on in writing, “When you’re convinced of your own exceptionality, it’s easy to dismiss others’ points of view.” When you’re convinced that this exceptionality is something you somehow deserve, it’s even easier.
Our feelings of exceptionality also rest on our faith in limitless possibility, a faith that Columbia, and American colleges in general, inculcate. And why shouldn’t they? Movies from Legally Blonde to Van Wilder expose us from an early age to an image of college as a period in life devoid of limits, whether on intellectual possibility or debaucherous behavior.
Columbia lives up to these expectations in many ways. An hour on the bulletin website can reveal worlds of unexplored mental territory. An hour at the activities fair can yield years’ worth of valuable ways to spend one’s time. An hour at The Heights can open new realms of, shall we say, consciousness.
The image of Columbia as the door to an infinite future is simultaneously why we love it, and why it leaves us cold. We are all capable of tremendous levels of achievement, but the world is not shaped to our every whim and will. Our experience, in college as everywhere else, mixes crushing disappointments and missed opportunities with triumphs and unexpected joys. We need to be more honest about this fact, both in our internal thoughts and our outward orientation. Positive thinking and positive reinforcement make a real difference in creating a welcoming atmosphere, but a culture of false positivity and false promises alienates us when we do face challenges and problems.
Columbia trades on the idea of potential. We all have immense potential to be our best selves. But achieving this potential means realizing what sort of people we really are, not unthinkingly pursuing every path to success we can see. Ambition surely defines this campus as much as anything else—too often, though, this ambition doesn’t quite know what it’s ambitious for. This attitude only leads us down paths of stress, petty competition, and isolation.
A stronger community within our gates could result from refuting the sense of completely unbounded possibility, expressed so simply in the immortal words of Cady Herron, that our school and our culture teach us. Some limits do exist.
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