Spending the past week packing for my study abroad program in the Netherlands and watching my friends endure the stress of the return to school really felt great. Schadenfreude, I guess. And while everyone has been busy being busy, I have had the luxury of pondering why some choose to go abroad and some choose to stay.
The percent of Columbia students who study abroad is unnecessarily low. Studying abroad should be the default track, and it should be worked into the Core Curriculum if it claims to provide a diverse experience for undergraduates. I would strongly argue that there is no substitute for lived experience.
Most people who choose not to study abroad have a stock excuse that’s some permutation of “it won’t fit into my life.” Some common examples are “I have too many Core classes left” or “I’m quadruple majoring” or “I have a Barclay’s interview in March that I really can’t miss.”
These reasons are usually genuine. People want to study abroad but feel unable to. For some students it seems impossible to vanish for a semester. There are two major ironies about this situation: the first is that the Core, which is supposed to broaden our horizons, actually hinders students from the broadening experience of living in another country. This is an easy fix—eliminate the various unnecessary prerequisites for study abroad and offer it as an alternative to Global Core.
The second is more difficult. All of these trivial things (clubs, majors, internships, interviews) are facets of our very specific culture. If we took the time to study other cultures, we could free ourselves from Columbia’s oppressive collective anxiety. But we are so wrapped up in the communal delusion that these commitments are all-important that we don’t even have time to look at other cultures. Thus the cycle is perpetuated. So it turns out that without exposure to other cultures, people drown in their own. Lived experience is the only way out of this loop.
In other words, I don’t want to become cultured, I want to become cultureless. And it just so happens that the way to become so is by immersing yourself in other cultures until you reach the point where your own seems as absurd as the rest. The content of the culture you immerse yourself in is trivial—you can poke around the world’s wells of wisdom and take a few ideas that you like. But the ultimate benefit is to gain a basis for comparison and, hopefully, perspective. I don’t have a particular vendetta against the highly-productive, Ivy League-educated, American way of life—I like it a lot, but there are still some things we could learn from the more relaxed corners of the world, just like they can learn from us.
When I see my friends obsessing about internships or grades, I find it funny that they can be so invested in a culture without recognizing it as such. They are just as immoderate as the people in Papua New Guinea who munch on the brains of their dead pals. Binging on career fairs and self-medicating with Everclear and Five-Hour Energy is no more normal than the customs and lifestyles around the world that we consider bizarre.
The beauty of studying culture is that it has a geometric quality to it. We start off only at a point, just knowing one culture. Learning about how other people live doesn’t only give us another point, but it also creates a line of perspective. And a third creates a plane, and so on, so that our understanding increases exponentially when we learn about culture linearly. It’s so hard to break the shell of that first culture, though. Plato had it right when he said we want to kill whoever informs us of our own delusion: Nobody wants to find out that they have been living in a world of absurdity, but each culture is just another absurd way to live.
Culture routinely convinces its subjects to do things that are objectively terrible, like fight in a war or work eighty-hour weeks as an investment banker or go to law school. What a perfectly evolved way for a society to get what it wants: cultural stigmas and merits convince individuals to suffer for everyone’s sake merely with the promise of status and honor and other things that cost nothing to manufacture but cost your precious time to earn. Your time is worth more to yourself than to anyone else, and without cultural perspective, it is easy to simply become part of someone else’s plan, in which you are sure to be undervalued.
I don’t know what I’ll learn in the Netherlands, but that’s precisely the point. If I knew what I would learn, I wouldn’t have to learn it. I have to take a leap of faith and recognize that there are some things that can only be known through experience. I am trying to heed what the Core has to say: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The shackles are self-imposed, and the key to unlock them lies in the knowledge that there are things worth knowing I cannot yet predict; I can only push myself in the direction of stumbling upon them.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies and linguistics. He is studying in Leiden, the Netherlands.Thinking Twice runs alternate Wednesdays.
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