College is back in session! And President Joe Biden has kicked off fall semester with a bang.
Is his $300 billion plan to forgive student debt a brilliant idea that will relieve a burdened generation? Or a terrible policy that leaves the working class footing the bill of the country’s college graduates?
That debate—and so much more—is what you can expect this week at Common Sense and Honestly.
It’s Back to School Week. And we’re kicking it off with a sharp, thoughtful essay from one of our summer interns, a college senior imparting some hard-won words of wisdom to incoming freshmen. It’s about all the false choices facing college students—and the challenge of living authentically on campuses where sameness has become the rule.
If you read Common Sense you know that we care a great deal about higher education. It’s not just that our universities are charged with educating tomorrow’s leaders. It’s that they are incubators of our ideas, our language, our social movements and our politics.
What happens on campus never, ever stays there. So stay tuned this week for stories with implications far beyond the quad.
Dear incoming college freshman,
It’s time to make some Important Choices. By now, your new “.edu” inbox is overflowing with emails from administrators asking you about your preferred dining options—Are you vegan? Do you want your meals to-go? Are you sure you’re not a vegan?—and roommates—How do you feel about night owls? How clean do you expect your new BFF to be? Is it okay if this person smokes?—and all the clubs you might join: Badminton, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Glee, Ski Racing, ChicanX Caucus, Anime Society . . . you name it, they’ve got it.
Then, there’s your dorm. You’ve probably spent hours, as I did, on Amazon and Dormify, shopping for the perfect dorm room essentials until even when you close your eyes, you’re seeing floral-printed duvets. Once you’re on campus, you’ll have to choose your spot in the library, your seat in the lecture hall, your on-campus gym.
But before you devote untold hours to mapping out exactly how you think the next four years of your life will go, I want to offer you this thought from a college senior who learned it the hard way: None of these decisions really matter.
They’re not important because they’re not real. They might feel like actual choices—I know they did to me when I started school. But I have come to understand them as fake ones—ones that distract us all from the fact that college has become a place where students no longer make real intellectual and moral choices, the choices that actually matter.
Beneath the surface of all those meaningless choices, whose purpose is to assert meaningless differences, is an overpowering sameness. We may have different diets and duvets, but we quickly absorb the fact that we are all supposed to think the same. That sameness is kept in place by an array of social forces, cues, nods, and emojis. Sometimes it’s overt. Sometimes it’s just a vibe.
I suspect it’s already familiar to many of you. It’s the lack of discussion in lecture halls because people think they think the same things or because they’re afraid to use the wrong word, or get called out. It’s the rallies where people have no idea what they’re calling for and don’t care because they just want their presence to be noted, tagged, and liked. It’s the students and professors and T.A.’s nodding along, clapping uproariously, at all the correct platitudes that nobody bothers to unpack: Defund the police! Free Palestine! Believe all women! (All of them? Really?)
And sometimes, unbelievably, it’s a prominent, tenured professor with decades of experience and accrued wisdom quietly, behind closed doors, acknowledging that your unpopular opinion—the one you were bold or dumb enough to give voice to in class—was actually valid, that she didn’t want to say as much in front of her students, because, you know, it’s easier to go along. (True story.)
Baruch Spinoza—some of you will encounter him in Intro to Modern Philosophy—tells us that the only true freedom is freedom of thought. It comes from what you believe, not what you say you believe or what you look like. If Spinoza were to reappear on campus today, he’d see a lot of people with different colored hair and tattoos and piercings who insist they are living their truth but are, in fact, unwitting prisoners of someone else’s.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of contemporary existentialism, wouldn’t be surprised in the least. Sartre tells us that, okay, you may be in possession of your freedom, as Spinoza says, but you don’t want it. None of us do. We might say we do, but we’re lying to ourselves. To Sartre, we avoid freedom and lean into imprisonment because freedom is hard.
They’re both right. And the best way to break free of this double bind (resisting false freedom and then forcing ourselves to seize the real one) is to make choices that amount to statements of moral preference. They are a part of a bigger assertion: I will be free.
Often, these choices are subtle. For example, my friends. I have four of them. I’m not a weirdo. I’ve just only met four people on campus who insist on being free—the people who have shown me, more than anyone else, what it means to stand up for something, to make an argument, to listen, to admit being wrong, the people whom I admire and respect and really, truly know. It is because of these four friendships that I am now inching toward graduation, knowing that I’ve transcended the isolation I faced when I arrived three years ago. Back then, I found myself in situations much like my professor in the seminar course I described above: afraid, clinging to sameness for the sake of comfort, and surrounding myself with like-minded people.
I was lucky enough to find these four friends because I chose to take classes that taught me how to think, how to distinguish between fake and real choices, how to find meaning in other people—and ultimately, discover myself. It was in one of these classes—Medieval Intellectual Life—that I met my best friend. In a discussion on Thomas Aquinas’ definition of human nature, my now-best friend was the only person who disagreed with me—vehemently. (I argued that Aquinas believed that, as we learn, we discover ourselves and, by extension, God. He countered that learning has nothing to do with self-discovery.) At the time, I found him annoying and assumed he hadn’t so much as glanced at the reading assignment. As we left class, he asked me to get coffee. My natural instinct to shut him out was replaced with a sense of endearment and, eventually, into respect and deep friendship. I attribute our friendship to our mutual desire to escape sameness.
Another important choice I made was to go to class.
In the fall of my junior year, I took a class with Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president and a prominent legal scholar, called Freedom of Speech and the Press. At the time, graduate students were striking for higher wages and health benefits. Eventually, my peers stopped attending class to signify solidarity with their T.A.’s.
One day, the strikers barged into our lecture hall, screaming in the president’s face and encouraging students to leave the class. Many did. I did not. In the days to come, in a group chat with my friends from that class, we established they would not be attending the next class. “Are u guys going,” someone texted. That was followed by: “No,” “No lol,” “no,” “Like the most inappropriate class to attend today,” and then, “It’ll just be u and Lee and his bodyguard,” and, finally, “Lmaooo.”
I kept going. Not just because I was given the opportunity to take a freedom of speech course with one of the most important free speech scholars in the world, or because each lecture runs roughly $700, or because I am truly interested in the subject, though all of those reasons are part of it. I chose to go because other people storming into class and telling me what I was supposed to believe and do felt wrong. Like it wasn’t me. Like I was being asked to conform to the blob, to give in to the sameness.
I didn’t want to be part of the reason that in America, in the 21st century, a teacher needs a bodyguard to teach class. And I didn’t want to be a part of the reason that students feel ashamed to go to class either.
So, as I sat in the lecture hall chair, biting my nails and tapping my foot anxiously against the floor, I debated my next course of action. If I stayed seated, I would surely be excluded from the study guides that my friends would pass around in group chats.
I pondered getting up with everyone else and walking out of the lecture hall. If I did walk out, I told myself, I wouldn’t chant along with everyone else or clap or add to the madness. I’d simply leave class, keep my head down, and be rewarded with study guides and maybe even a friend to add to my four-person collection. And I’d try to pretend I wasn’t ashamed of myself.
And then I thought: No way.
I stayed. And sure enough, it all happened exactly as I expected. The angry stares. The judgment. The exclusion. And you know what? It was worth it. I may not have made myself any friends that day, but choosing to act according to my conscience—choosing to stand apart without falling apart—is the most important, real choice I’ve made on campus.
Maya Sulkin’s last essay for us was about the shooting over July 4th in her hometown of Highland Park, Illinois.