There was a day not so long ago, longing for L.A., that I decided to go to the beach. This was just as preparation for the first round of the semester’s midterms was ramping up, and I was pretty sure I had at least a couple of books I needed to read before the end of the day for Literature Humanities. Nevertheless, I found a few people willing to take the Q train to its final stop (an endeavor in itself), grabbed a pair of sunglasses, and headed for sunny Coney Island.
I look back on that impulsive excursion and I wonder where exactly the impetus for the trip came from. The weather that day was mildly warm at best and the beach lining the edge of Coney Island was probably going to look like a run-down sandbox in comparison to its more glamorous counterparts on the West Coast (spoiler alert, it did).
I think I’ve found an answer: the underlying desire to escape an atmosphere demanding seriousness and strict focus on school. Now that midterms are in full swing, the general air of rigidity that wafts a few feet in the air above the brick and cobblestone walkways of campus is even more detectable. It’s the expected result of a workload that is incredibly rigorous (reaffirmed by our number one ranking in The Daily Beast’s “20 Most Rigorous Colleges”).
The norm of austerity is clearer whenever I ask others about their own college. When prompted about what distinguishes their school from Columbia, most students respond matter-of-factly, “Well, it’s a lot more chill.”
Taking that into account, I almost feel compelled to question an environment that is conducive to prioritizing the information and work administered in the classroom above all else. One might think that the nagging curiosities that are offered in endless supply by New York can be satisfied during the weekend, but I’ve met one too many older students wishing they had spent more time during their first year exploring the city. More proof that even during free days, class work will take precedent—if there’s enough of it waiting to be finished.
But what exactly are the pluses of getting off campus and exploring the many facets of New York? Something about the act of simply seeing what is out there has to hold some importance. I would never have really known how filthy the water that laps the Coney Island beach really was without taking a plunge into the waves. Or that the Cyclone costs a whopping nine bucks per ride. Go figure.
On a more serious note, there are those that support the idea of constructing an education entirely away from the boundaries of institutionalized schooling. Walter Kirn, a graduate of Princeton, describes a cynical view of the American education system in his memoir, “Lost in the Meritocracy.” In the work, Kirn comments on his journey from one of the worst public schools in Minnesota to Princeton: “I’d been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, running my mouth in mock United Nations, and I knew only one direction: forward ... learning was secondary, promotion was primary.”
With that, Kirn exposes an interesting paradigm in the progression from high school to college. Kirn claims that in the process of working toward a future goal, we adopt “tactics” that are meant to maximize our appeal on paper. And after all, that’s how Columbia, as with any other school, decided who to let in and who to reject.
The consequence of strategizing as opposed to learning in the moment is that we may find ourselves lacking a solid educational foundation. Though this does not apply to everyone, I myself regret skimping on classes senior year to practice standardized testing tricks. That’s why—depending on how you actually define education—letting yourself be consumed by rankings and numbers can take away not only from learning in the classroom but also the learning that occurs from stepping out and seeing, experiencing, and wondering.
Outside Columbia’s bubble, statistics fall away and general mind sets disperse. We should get outside of the firm rectangle of campus to set out for random destinations as much as possible. The irregular shapes and contours of external life are a series of endless combinations and contain endless opportunities for inquiry.
Lucas Macha is a Columbia College first-year. Macha Man runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.