“Education is all a matter of building bridges.” Ralph Ellison articulates our often-overlooked conception of purpose and the value of our education here at Columbia and Barnard. For me, the value of education is the drawing together of ideas and, in this case, the drawing together of people, the creation of a community. We build bridges with words, from one idea to the next, teacher to student, student to student, friend to friend. The bridge is what matters—not the destination or origin, but the structure itself.
This conception of education is in many ways contrary to the focus on products and results that is ingrained in our culture, particularly in New York City and at Columbia. We derive meaning from what can be defined and quantified into our arbitrarily accepted notions of success. In fact, it may simply be a human quality: We look at our lives as a series of relational events, ruled by some linear notion of causality, which force us to assemble the myriad of moments into a logical and provable structure. Many of us have particularly seminal moments of either triumph or tragedy that compose the basis of any kind of trajectory in our lives.
However, I sometimes think we overlook the importance of the undefined—the negative space of life between those carefully drawn accomplishments and conclusions—and, in doing so, suffer some sort of loss in how we understand ourselves and our education here.
These are the moments that can never be catalogued into a linear progression, the slices that are tasted and then drift into the depths of memory or are forgotten altogether by the conscious mind. Not everything comes to a conclusion that we can grasp, and I think that is something I, and many of us here–myself included– struggle with, most especially in relation to how our education here is informed by our community and the people around us.
At Columbia, we talk a lot about seeking substantive, deep conversations. This presents a deeply personal dilemma for me, but it is one that I think resonates with many people on campus: How do I achieve the level of depth and completion in developing relationships with those around me? To get more out of our relationships with others and a sense of place within our school community, we need to recognize our vulnerability to time instead of always attempting to control it. This recognition begins by valuing the interactions we have with each other in these amorphous, in-between spaces (waiting in line, walking to class, etc.), which are the essence of unmanaged, uncontrolled time.
Just because you can’t point to something you’ve gained from a conversation or experience doesn’t mean that it hasn’t, however slightly, shifted your perspective, and we might not ever be consciously aware of everything that has been worthwhile or important in our lives. To extend it further, the very act of small talk, the involvement in the superficial immediate, is generally an expression of love—familial, platonic, romantic, even religious, to some degree—when the mundane is significant. For example, hearing about someone’s work or the little quirks or things they do that distinguish them will never definitively change one’s perspective, but it is the little things that matter to that particular person and therefore that are relevant to you. And sometimes those things do make for somewhat boring, uninspired conversation—but collectively, every rushed or hurried exchange, every “What classes are you taking?” or “Where are you from?” or even “Wow, it’s really windy today” provides the soil in which every other deeper connection is rooted, and out of which it grows.
These connections don’t always come in the form of fully-formed philosophies and pure intellectual congruency—sometimes they’re just the revelation of common threads that weave us together. The pure, peaceful silence of sharing the same air and breath and scene as two people sit side by side, even if what lies within their depths is unarticulated or unknown to each other. Sometimes it is enough to be able to say hello. Sometimes it is enough to smile. Who knows whether that will be contained within that particular moment—whether that small exchange will stretch far beyond what a particular “substantive” conversation may accomplish. Human conversation is in and of itself a miracle, an intricate tightrope walk of words balancing upon meaning, and, in valuing it in its most basic forms, we begin the construction of those bridges of education—composed at their foundations of words and simple gestures—which will provide a stronger, farther-reaching infrastructure for collective understanding.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. She is an associate arts and entertainment editor for Spectator.