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Toward a more lighthearted college culture

By Matthew Kowalyk

Section: Opinions

March 23, 2018

I had certain expectations of college culture before I arrived at Brandeis, expectations that mostly consisted of what my parents had told me, stories from friends who went to bigger universities (Pitt, Penn State) and movies like “Animal House” and “The Social Network.” I had watched videos of people doing crazy things at MIT (turning a whole building into a Tetris game, putting a police car on top of the main building, making the freshman build roller coasters, etc.). I toured Tufts and saw them paint their cannon. These are unique traditions and they bring the community together in ways that are not particularly controversial, nor do they provide for much individual recognition. People have to work together and take risks together. I do not see much of this at Brandeis, and aside from my disappointment at not taking part in college antics that I can fondly look back on, I wonder why Brandeis does not have similar idiosyncratic behaviors.

Brandeis has had a reputation for the weird and the risky in the past, like myths of students smoking bowls with their professors during the 1960s, similar odd goings-on in the Fellows Garden and even recently in the mid-2000s, with the mythical Disco Tent. According to legend, it was an event involving a large ‘hoedown’ in the woods with music and a large tent, and was sponsored by the university. Disco Tent was rumored to be like the Holy Grail: elusive, filled with alcohol and lost to the annals of time. We can only imagine how it must have been.

It is not that Brandeis does not have any wacky traditions. We have Liquid Latex, the 24-hour musical and myriad distinctive events that clubs host. Most events have deeper political or social meanings than on their face: Liquid Latex, for example, is not just dancing students wearing little more than latex paint but body positivity and liberation. Little is undertaken for the pure fun or tradition, but college has the potential to be an impulsive time. This element of fun is missing in our student body, with students giving up impulsivity and wackiness to dedicate themselves to political or charitable causes. These things are an important part of college life in their own right, but we need more experimentation. The culture of college-aged people is imbued with a hyper-seriousness in which people are unable to access belonging, lightheartedness and meaning outside of technology.

This hyper-seriousness manifests in the Student Union, where I am a senator. Debates in the senate can become incredibly heated, long-winded and unproductive, and participation and attendance can be lax. Debates over club chartering can become so heated that an outside observer might wonder if we’re debating something as serious as the death penalty. We are a student government with limited power, so we need to work as efficiently as possible in order to make change. I think that with a decreased level of seriousness, people might work together better and be clearer in mind. Rather than fighting to the death over school-policy-related affronts to convictions that are taken personally, maybe a slight recognition that we are a student government with limited power would bring down the vitriol. An attempt at self-aware fun can make the experience more productive.

The over-seriousness manifests in narcissism, flakiness and dishonesty. The sources of this are not hard to discern: we are in an interconnected, technology-burdened social culture that has yet to come to terms with the impact of technology on our culture. With our changing culture comes a decline of trust in social institutions, and a turn toward alienation from others through technology. We use technology as a crutch for meaning and belonging. We should not turn to media for the relief we seek from each other—this only furthers the problem.

Life is found in randomness and risk, and a return to light-hearted college culture where students don’t feel pressured to be hyper-serious and hyper-committed might help young people find the belonging we seek. It also might help our student government get more efficient along the way.

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