It looks like the theme for the opinion page this week has been “lessons learned.” We’ve had reflections on successful Columbia experiences and warnings about moral indecision, questions about the true value of our education mixed in with casual optimism for the uncertain future beyond Morningside. It’s the annual end-of-year Spectator Symposium and, for the first time, I’m contributing.
My existential crisis question requires some context. On a personal level, it’s been a strange year. I spent the first half in Brazil, where I learned that there is such a thing as school without constant stress, in addition to the value of sun and sand to an undergraduate education. But it was the exposure to what I’ll tentatively label “real-world issues” that was the most important education I received. I could talk about study abroad forever, but I’ll just say this: There is no substitute for facing people as they really are outside of the realm of theory and overwrought academic-speak. I see my time at Columbia as a period of “creative destruction”—the tearing down of preconceptions through constant exposure to the different—“outside your comfort zone” experiences. There was something about being in Brazil in particular, about witnessing the challenges faced by a rapidly developing, multiracial nascent democracy that was especially conducive to this process. It was something that a semester in Paris, Berlin, or Bologna could not have given me.
What I received was a—caution: buzzword alert—global education, an education that is applicable outside of New York and outside of the United States. Although New York will force you into some pretty uncomfortable quarters with some pretty “different” people, this state is temporary. You leave the exotic realm of the subway car and walk back into your familiar neighborhood, familiar dorm, all filled with familiar faces. Any momentary inconvenience disappears. No, there is something about being airdropped into a foreign country with a foreign language and foreign mannerisms that cannot be replicated in any classroom.
This is the real meaning of a global education. As much as we discuss educating “morals,” “goodness,” or “character,” the best instruction I received in any of those areas I received away from Columbia. It is abroad, adjusting to foreign norms and mannerisms, that you truly learn what it is that you value. I, as well as any other student who traveled abroad to a place where an average day didn’t consist of dodging croissant-wielding American tourists, can attest to that. There is nothing like getting hopelessly lost on foreign mass-transit to teach you “character,” specifically: patience, fortitude, and dynamism. Or, as I like to call it, no longer giving a fuck.
When I returned to Columbia, my “give-no-fuck” attitude was in for a hard landing. Columbia is a place where lots of people give lots of fucks. I had returned back to a campus that was grappling with itself over how much pressure it place on students, over its relationship with Barnard, over diversity, and over defining the role of a “university.” In many ways, Columbia was and still is defined by introversion. We often think of the “Columbia Bubble” as a barrier that keeps students inside. I have come to think of it in a different way, as a fence keeping alternative ideas out.
This is what a global education should provide us. The issues that have defined this semester have been inherently local ones, forcing us to question ourselves and what we value. Great, I am always in support of introspection. But, in a way that I had not noticed before my sojourn overseas, Columbians have a very insular way of confronting our problems. We jump to maudlin conclusions and self-incrimination. The Obamanard Bwog comments became a cause célèbre of modern-day sexism on campus, rather than what President Debora Spar correctly identified as a couple of late-night douche bags seeking a rise out of easily-ruffled students. The School of General Studies Class Day debacle turned into a discussion of whether we value the presence of GS-ers on campus, ignoring the fact that it was simply a failing of Obama’s security team to adequately prep the graduation planning committee. These explanations were too easy, I assume.
We are Columbia students. We love getting angry. But I offer these simple words of advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Bureaucratic failings do not necessarily point to society-wide conspiracies. Sometimes, the simplest conclusion is the actual conclusion. The biggest lesson I took away from my global education is that taking the time for a slow, deep breath can be more productive than a million indignant letters to the editor.
Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College junior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is the Latin America and Caribbean affairs correspondent for the Columbia Political Review. Too Be Frank runs alternate Thursdays.