The best and the brightest. They often use this expression at Convocation to describe Columbia’s newest and most impressive entering class. If I could compare students to vehicles—which stems from my fascination with public transportation—every year there is always someone with a better, more robust engine than a student from the previous year. Someone who’s been thoroughly inspected with more safeguards against mechanical failures than you. Someone who can cross the finish line faster than you.
At a time of increasing competition from abroad and within the country, schools tend to feel like high-speed autobahns rather than residential learning communities. As a resident adviser in John Jay, I have had conversations with first-years who already know what they want to do during and after college. Before ever stepping on campus, they have decided what they would major in, what student groups would benefit them in their professional careers, and what internships they would pursue in New York. Students gear up with demanding credits and majors to prove their multiple competencies. For them, classes in the Core are simply detours from the straight paths they had envisioned. Their bold ambitions make them squint at their exits from afar, when they could be enjoying the ride.
Voltaire famously wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.” This quote often gets misinterpreted to mean that it’s okay to not strive for excellence or even competence. What Voltaire means is that in their obsession with absolute perfection, people often sacrifice other worthwhile, good endeavors. It is still important to always strive for excellence. But it’s worth noting that in the race to finish first, leaders in highly specialized fields tend to lose their ability to relate their expertise to the average layperson.
At Columbia, I am concerned that in our pursuit of excellence, or perhaps even perfection, we are also sacrificing values that have served us well for 258 years. Columbia College proudly states in its mission statement that our students successfully achieve intellectual, social, and career mobility. Required courses in the Core ask students to question boundaries that have separated people from different times, professions, and disciplines. This mobility serves graduates well, as they enter a constantly changing world. When faced with an unpredictable future, it is best to be adaptable to change than to over-specialize in a skill that may no longer be useful.
Many have already reflected on the immense value of thriving in Columbia’s intellectually and professionally diverse environment. However, there has been insufficient attention given to the lack of social cohesion and mobility among undergraduate students. Our undergraduate schools are at the heart of the University. The colleges were some of the first schools to take root in Morningside Heights, and they continue to drive the momentum of life on campus. Just as the colleges define the character of the University, the residence halls should occupy the center of the undergraduate experience.
Our dorms are the first buildings we ever set foot in upon arriving at Columbia. In comparison to the many self-selecting organizations on campus, university housing offers students little control over their community. You can’t evict someone down the hall simply because the chemistry isn’t right. It is here in these living spaces that we have the opportunity to find people who can challenge the core of our beliefs and practices. We thereby form social relationships as widely as possible, even with people we thought impossible to become friends with.
Yet shortly after the rush and thrill of freshman year, people again feel the need to specialize—this time in their social lives. For this reason, I cringed as one of this year’s Convocation speakers emphatically encouraged first-year students to religiously pursue what they’re good at. I must acknowledge that it’s important to stay committed to a passion, for it is what gets us out of bed every morning. There is, however, a tendency to focus on one’s own interests to the point of lacking curiosity in others.
It follows then that upperclassmen residence halls lack a vibrant culture. As an RA last year, I encountered seniors who had already mentally checked-out by September and simply weren’t interested in meeting their neighbors. I used to condone some of my peers’ lack of interest in their floors. Perhaps they don’t have the luxury of time. Perhaps they face a lot of pressure in the personal lives, I reasoned. A few did warrant the benefit of the doubt, as they were struggling with part-time jobs to pay for school. However, I also met many others who were actively involved in their respective campus groups. They had the time and means to participate in their residential community but chose not to.
Students’ self-segregation into monolithic groups is closely related to the chronic habit of being the best. Because of some unspoken pressure to exert dominance in a social hierarchy, students often self-segregate into micro-communities, where it is easy to emerge as a leader with time and with support from like-minded individuals. For this reason, I say that the pursuit to be the absolute best is the enemy of the good. It is my hope that regardless of our different backgrounds, we can prioritize a shared sense of purpose for our campus, generation, nation, and the world.
James Yoon is a Columbia College senior majoring in environmental science and concentrating in biology. Yooniversity runs alternate Thursdays.
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