Let’s turn back the clock: The year is 1348 and you are a fresh-faced, wet behind the ears burgher-class white kid eagerly waiting to hear back from the University of Bologna, your dream school. After a brutal application process—complete with an interview with an alumnus who asks you your opinion on heretics (“they should be burned”)—you finally, five months later, receive your beautifully illuminated acceptance letter in the mail. Whatever our Middle Age protagonist will major in, be it leech-based medicine or flame-based jurisprudence, chances are good that you will have only one potential employer once you graduate: the Church. And because the Church provides the framework that structures much of medieval life, chances are also good that you can look forward to profitable dividends and immense influence. That is, a life of relative comfort and power.

Today’s university students have a greater choice in potential majors, future employers, and immunity to the plague than did the students of medieval universities, but the life of relative comfort and ease that we can look forward to remains mostly the same. True, those things might not be the reason you came to Columbia, but they certainly are salutary side effects at the very least. At the very most, comfort, power, and its perpetuation among a small group of its chosen elite are not side effects at all, but arguably the precise reason Columbia or any other elite university exists in the first place.

Too cynical? What about the lofty goal of producing knowledge? Well, knowledge for whom? In the Middle Ages, the answer was clear and in Latin: Any intellectual output produced within university walls was produced by and for the ruling classes. At Columbia, the answer is much less obvious, if indeed there is a single answer at all. Higher education has a new goal in addition to its old one of educating the elite: upward mobility. This aim occupies a curious place in the progressive agenda, since it simultaneously challenges and endorses the class system. It is an egalitarian goal insofar as upward mobility allows more people to enjoy a life of relative comfort and power, but it is an inegalitarian goal insofar as upward mobility relies on there being an “up” to begin with. What we’re left with is an awkward arrangement in which changing the status quo relies upon entry into the upper echelons of the social pyramid.

This contradiction is usually resolved by adopting a sense of noblesse oblige toward the disadvantaged. It is our duty, so the reasoning proceeds, to use our positions of power to help the less fortunate. The assumption that motivates this line of thought is that inequality is an instrumental vice––it is bad because of its consequences, namely the crummy quality of life that is brought on by inequality. If, on the other hand, you think that inequality is also an inherent vice, that it is bad in and of itself, then Columbia is a curious place for you, and you might be better off joining the struggle in Rojava.

Naturally, there are other paths toward upward mobility and a decent life than admission into the Ivy League, all of which liberal activists also advocate. But the Ivy League offers the most mobility and the best odds at a decent life, so it is little wonder that such a disproportionate amount of resources have been poured into jimmying open our gates. Our medieval counterparts, who thought that their rule was God-ordained, would surely balk at the hoi polloi that made it into their vaunted ivory tower. And likewise, today’s liberal Columbians should, if not balk, at least be aware that this was, always has been, and will continue to be a place for the elite. That fact does not preclude your egalitarian impulses entirely, but it does put a cap on them.

Let’s turn back the clock: The year is 1348 and you are a fresh-faced, wet behind the ears burgher-class white kid eagerly waiting to hear back from the University of Bologna, your dream school. After a brutal application process—complete with an interview with an alumnus who asks you your opinion on heretics (“they should be burned”)—you finally, five months later, receive your beautifully illuminated acceptance letter in the mail. Whatever our Middle Age protagonist will major in, be it leech-based medicine or flame-based jurisprudence, chances are good that you will have only one potential employer once you graduate: the Church. And because the Church provides the framework that structures much of medieval life, chances are also good that you can look forward to profitable dividends and immense influence. That is, a life of relative comfort and power.

Today’s university students have a greater choice in potential majors, future employers, and immunity to the plague than did the students of medieval universities, but the life of relative comfort and ease that we can look forward to remains mostly the same. True, those things might not be the reason you came to Columbia, but they certainly are salutary side effects at the very least. At the very most, comfort, power, and its perpetuation among a small group of its chosen elite are not side effects at all, but arguably the precise reason Columbia or any other elite university exists in the first place.

Too cynical? What about the lofty goal of producing knowledge? Well, knowledge for whom? In the Middle Ages, the answer was clear and in Latin: Any intellectual output produced within university walls was produced by and for the ruling classes. At Columbia, the answer is much less obvious, if indeed there is a single answer at all. Higher education has a new goal in addition to its old one of educating the elite: upward mobility. This aim occupies a curious place in the progressive agenda, since it simultaneously challenges and endorses the class system. It is an egalitarian goal insofar as upward mobility allows more people to enjoy a life of relative comfort and power, but it is an inegalitarian goal insofar as upward mobility relies on there being an “up” to begin with. What we’re left with is an awkward arrangement in which changing the status quo relies upon entry into the upper echelons of the social pyramid.

Jeremy Mack is a first-year English major at the School of General Studies. He is a proud graduate of Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY—the town in which he was born and raised. He prefers to keep to himself, but, truth be told, he is more of an indoor cat than a lone wolf. His hobbies and pastimes are the usual boring pap that everyone does, but since his bio must be at least one hundred words, he will list some of them here: cycling, flossing after meals, watching television, reading books (picture and chapter), and listening to music.

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By JEREMY MACK
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Discourse & Debate: The trappings and triumphs of Columbia’s dual identity

In our public imagination, Columbia has the dual identity of being both a traditionally entrenched Ivy League university and a liberal activist haven, and as a result it faces the perceived trappings of both. How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed value systems? What is––or should be––Columbia's role in preserving the status quo? In spearheading radical change?

As the student of a world-renowned institution, is your soul worth compromising?

Popularly classified as a home for progressive, academic thought, Columbia University has convinced the public and itself of this false perception. As an African-American woman from the San Francisco Bay Area, I was raised in the birthplace of social liberatory action, from the 1960s’ UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a radical group aiming for black liberation founded in the 1960s and 1970s. I was normalized into a culture of true and passionate revolution, where the marginalized unify to achieve physical, psychological, and political protection. Therefore, my analysis of Columbia’s role as a supposedly “socially consciousness” institution is respectfully critical, as the powerful and the privileged are benefactors of the status quo.

In the spirit of performative activism and empathy, predominately white institutions speak of an open-minded educational model, but one must question whose existence has been historically favored and protected by Ivy Leagues such as our own. I believe there are two sides of the social advocacy coin, where accountability simultaneously lies in both the university and the students.

While encroaching on the neighborhood of Harlem, Columbia sells a dream of global leadership. Whether targeting incoming first-years, transfer students, or prospective candidates, Columbia promises an experience defined by the multiplicity of voices and backgrounds roaming around campus. However, Columbia needs to evaluate its methods of inclusion and tolerance in relation to a complex racial history. From some of the first presidents of Columbia owning slaves to the school’s placement on the land of the indigenous Lenape people, any legitimate social reform must be informed by our past.

In believing we are leading change-makers, do we have a responsibility to institutionally reconcile with our convoluted legacy? As much as I admire our desire to research and learn, if we are unable to listen to the concerns of Harlem residents, question Columbia’s contribution to gentrification, or act upon our individual values, are we truly ready to positively impact the world outside of Columbia?

Until Columbia seeks restorative justice in the generational abuse and neglect it has inflicted on the Harlem community and marginalized students, no radical progress can be made. And as members of Columbia seek to influence future generations and be politically engaged in society, we must also recognize how our privileged status as Columbia students can actually push dialogues and minds. Radical change will always belong to the most vulnerable; however, we can use our degrees, networks, advantages, and ideas to elevate those who have fewer opportunities than us. Ultimately, if students desire to design a more harmonious and holistic world, we should reject complacency in elite contexts.

If social equity is to be committed to, the voices of Harlem residents and historically marginalized students must be taken as seriously as the most privileged voices. In imagining a more equitable society, the silenced should always be called upon first. Rather than cast them aside, one must actively learn why vulnerable communities are speaking out. I am honored to be a Columbia student and to possess opportunities that my ancestors could never have. I also strongly believe in the power of young people, educators, and liberatory intellectuals. Accountability, healing, and community restoration must be prioritized, and I hope to see my generation and those after me demand more from their world.

Columbia can do better, but only if it wants to.

As the student of a world-renowned institution, is your soul worth compromising?

Popularly classified as a home for progressive, academic thought, Columbia University has convinced the public and itself of this false perception. As an African-American woman from the San Francisco Bay Area, I was raised in the birthplace of social liberatory action, from the 1960s’ UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a radical group aiming for black liberation founded in the 1960s and 1970s. I was normalized into a culture of true and passionate revolution, where the marginalized unify to achieve physical, psychological, and political protection. Therefore, my analysis of Columbia’s role as a supposedly “socially consciousness” institution is respectfully critical, as the powerful and the privileged are benefactors of the status quo.

In the spirit of performative activism and empathy, predominately white institutions speak of an open-minded educational model, but one must question whose existence has been historically favored and protected by Ivy Leagues such as our own. I believe there are two sides of the social advocacy coin, where accountability simultaneously lies in both the university and the students.

Tova Ricardo is a sophomore in Columbia College, studying English and sociology. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ricardo is an original Golden State Warriors fan and honors the history of social activism in her communities. In the Office of Multicultural Affairs, she is a second-year board member on Queer and Trans Student Advisory Board. She is the Co-event planner and historian for the Barnard Writing Collective and was a member of the 2017-2018 Columbia/Barnard Poetry Slam Team. Ricardo is an avid reader of Langston Hughes, can be found studying in the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and loves taking walks through uptown New York City.

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By TOVA RICARDO
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Who said we were an activist haven? Was it you, 1968 promotional material?

Okay, for the first-years and anyone who has been buried under the Butler stacks until today: Yes, Columbia is elitist. It is as elitist as our Revolution-era founders were when they founded Columbia––I mean America. Our founders were in many ways progressive for their time. They rejected Hobbes' assertion that the state is almighty and said that people have rights and liberties under the federal government that cannot be infringed. By people, they meant certain men who happened to look like them and not like me. I don’t consider the Constitution neatly packaged firewood. I take key ideas—we may speak freely, pray to who we want, e pluribus unum, et cetera—and incorporate them into a modern framework.

The same applies here. Columbia has some of the world’s star researchers, advancing even our radical understandings of science, society, and the arts. And to do that, Columbia feels it needs to protect its researchers, the money that funds the researchers, and the donors that provide the money. When you’re any long-standing Institution––in the City of New York, of course––that means you probably have money from slavery and you’ll behave like a Wall Street elite more often than you think. However, that same University asserts the right to speak freely without sanctioned harassment, the duty to discuss the intellectual history of the Western tradition (which is another debate entirely), and the responsibility to extract from those discussions the means for a better world. Academic freedom isn’t inherent in most places. If nothing else, we need to fight for the active exercise of academic freedom, discussion, and debate, just like de Tocqueville would have wanted out of his newspapers.

To be honest, Columbia doesn’t feel any different from the Democratic Party. Sometimes its progressivism is a political maneuver that does a lot of good for marginalized people and the nation as a whole. Sometimes it’s dragged out of them over the course of years and decades. Maybe after this round of elections, Columbia—er, the Democrats—will have a strong band of socialists taking the helm.

Yes, we’re an Ivy League school. Enjoy your degree, by the way. But Columbia has always left open the tools for revolt. Of course it’ll say otherwise, but its history has too much revolution for this not to be true. Those protests, generations old (in student years), still happened. I don’t know if it takes the right person to sneak through the admissions process, or if revolution is necessarily Hegelian in nature, in which conditions shape the standard-bearer that makes history. I do know that many revolutionaries happened to be entrenched in highfalutin civil society. What was true for Washington, Bolivar, and Lenin might be true for the next student who walks into Starbucks.

Who said we were an activist haven? Was it you, 1968 promotional material?

Okay, for the first-years and anyone who has been buried under the Butler stacks until today: Yes, Columbia is elitist. It is as elitist as our Revolution-era founders were when they founded Columbia––I mean America. Our founders were in many ways progressive for their time. They rejected Hobbes' assertion that the state is almighty and said that people have rights and liberties under the federal government that cannot be infringed. By people, they meant certain men who happened to look like them and not like me. I don’t consider the Constitution neatly packaged firewood. I take key ideas—we may speak freely, pray to who we want, e pluribus unum, et cetera—and incorporate them into a modern framework.

Ufon Umanah is the investigations editor for The Blue and White, the undergraduate magazine of Columbia University. He’s involved in too many political groups, but that just means he knows a lot about what’s going on here. You can follow him @ufonumanah on Twitter, or read his blog, The Jotting Jay, for other interesting content.

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By UFON UMANAH

Students at my former university in France, Sciences Po, occupied the school’s main lecture hall in solidarity with pro-labor demonstrations around the country last April. This was “praxis” at its best, elite university students coming together in defense of the marginalized—asylum seekers, victims of police violence, students from bad neighborhoods—but not in defense of French Jews.

A few weeks before the occupation, anti-Semitic thugs stabbed to death an elderly Holocaust survivor in her Paris apartment. Atrocious, yes. But not shocking. France, like many of its neighbors, has an antisemitism problem to such a blatant extent that The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pondered in a 2015 article whether the Jews should leave Europe (his answer was chilling).

Radical activists at Sciences Po shot down a proposal to mention the plight of France’s Jewish population in their manifesto—a vehicle for Islamophobia, they called it on Facebook. And during a general assembly meeting I attended, they said that Jewish people are privileged compared with the others the movement sought to protect.

The French call that des conneries. We call it bullshit.

I am reminded of this because last week I picked up a copy of The Current’s (Columbia’s literary and Jewish cultural journal) Spring 2018 issue. Invoking Barnard’s recent vote for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), the editorial explained: “As is quite clear, the movement of left-leaning identity politics often excludes Jews despite their history of being marginalized. This erasure of Jewish claims to a history of persecution is tinged with anti-Semitism … In one month, the pro-Israel community was not going to change the orthodoxy that prevents Jewish cries of discrimination from being taken seriously.”

So let’s be clear about what this means: At Columbia and some other universities, “radical change” carries the specter of a specific set of progressive causes (BDS, fossil fuel divestment, graduate student unionization, etc.) to be promoted by often-disruptive activities, while excluding other issues and actions. This brand of activism prefers the flashy to the pragmatic—what did disrupting CUCR’s Tommy Robinson event last year actually accomplish?

It’s also true that not all activism falls into this category—there are plenty of non-radical social justice initiatives at Columbia. In many cases, students make a difference to the non-Columbians around them: Community engagement around Morningside Heights and Harlem isn’t a bad idea, to name one, but it’s not all that radical. Occupying Low Library to make a point about fossil fuels, on the other hand, is a shallow show of one’s supposed moral superiority. Some would call it virtue signaling. I just find the 1968 cosplay amusing.

Students trying to bring about radical change contort themselves to fit an old, tired, mold. The radical legacy that attracts some students to Columbia is just another perfunctory selling point, like having a new science building or a strong Model United Nations club. When writing college application essays, prospective students might name-drop them, but these qualities are really just the sprinkles on top of the sundae. Columbia’s status as an elite institution of higher education matters most.

For all the problems that plague our current social, political, and economic system, the status quo offers means to solutions through reasoned discussion. The liberal model of viewpoint, economic, and cultural exchange that underlies modernity is worth defending, and the past couple of years have proven that it needs defenders. The most distinctive aspect of radical activism is a fetish for the revolutionary: No equivocation, even less epistemological humility—fall in line or we’ll call you a white supremacist reactionary hack.

But, just maybe, the revolution passed long ago—pick from any point in the long parade of Western-liberal civilizational triumphs—and we’re living on the other side of it. As Columbia students, we should equip ourselves to defend and reasonably improve this status quo.

Students at my former university in France, Sciences Po, occupied the school’s main lecture hall in solidarity with pro-labor demonstrations around the country last April. This was “praxis” at its best, elite university students coming together in defense of the marginalized—asylum seekers, victims of police violence, students from bad neighborhoods—but not in defense of French Jews.

A few weeks before the occupation, anti-Semitic thugs stabbed to death an elderly Holocaust survivor in her Paris apartment. Atrocious, yes. But not shocking. France, like many of its neighbors, has an antisemitism problem to such a blatant extent that The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pondered in a 2015 article whether the Jews should leave Europe (his answer was chilling).

Jimmy Quinn is a junior in the School of General Studies, majoring in political science. He spent two years at Sciences Po in France, where he studied social sciences and was editor of the campus newspaper. In his spare time he likes to regale his friends with nonsensical stories that lack clear endings, but you might also find him on the bouldering wall. His pet peeve is large groups of slow people blocking the sidewalk. Reach him at jtq2104@columbia.edu if you also miss Nuss or just want to send him hate mail. He tweets @realjimmyquinn.

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By JIMMY QUINN

In 2018, Columbia University observed the 50th anniversary of its (in)famous 1968 uprisings. The way the events are preserved in institutional memory belies Columbia's disapproving and often outright hostile attitude toward student activism in the present—whether it involves students voicing their objection to white supremacist speakers or graduate students demanding their right to unionize.

But Columbia's dual identity is not a coincidence, nor is it a contradiction. It is a conscious branding effort, presented as a dialectic between classical wisdom and youthful idealism, with the uglier parts of their conflict, and the power of the institution over the protesters, always downplayed. This carefully crafted narrative claims to bring about a better university, continuously in creation, that adjusts to changing times without losing sight of the time-honored intellectualism that lingers in its hallowed halls of learning.

The neoliberal university, particularly one with as much wealth and name recognition as Columbia, is, of course, deeply concerned with the image it presents to the public. Protest activity can often damage that image—in the aftermath of the 1968 protests, for example, alumni donations and applications fell as Columbia's reputation took a hit. Although it at first tried to bury and forget 1968 and downplay its campus protest activity, Columbia later realized that it could rehabilitate the image of the protests in order to subsume them into the Columbia brand—rewrite that part of its history to the benefit of the University.

Columbia benefits from both sides of the seemingly irreconcilable dual identity it holds in the cultural imaginary: the prestigious and well-respected institution with graduates in high places, and its refreshingly defiant students unafraid to challenge authority and seek a better world.

And this opportunistic branding has come at a cost to the very campus activism for which Columbia has become famous. If Columbia is the "activist Ivy," then appearing socially conscious and attending protests can bring social cachet in certain circles. Though certainly not unique to Columbia, such a culture can lead to performativity and a focus on aesthetics and signifiers taking precedence over organizing and community-building, leaving student activists drained and demoralized.

But if Columbia is not quite the positive force in the world that it's made out to be, what should we do about it? As an institution entrenched in the power structures of the status quo and deeply invested in maintaining it, the possibility that Columbia can, through reforms from within, transform into a vanguard of radical change seems unlikely. Not that student activism, and the subsequent reforms, don't make a difference—in 2015, as a result of student and faculty organizing and activism, Columbia became the first university to divest from the private prison industry, setting a precedent for other institutions to follow suit and further discredit those morally bankrupt institutions. However, the overall impact on our society of Columbia University and its peer institutions remains a force of inertia, reinforcing existing power structures.

Confronting the realities of our school's real impact on the communities within which it exists, beyond its veneer of progressivism, may make many of us uncomfortable. It often makes me uncomfortable. But if we are to truly pursue justice, we must act with the understanding that Columbia is not the vanguard of progress it's sometimes made out to be. It is rather invested in the structures of the status quo, which is to say the structures benefiting the ruling class and white supremacy. We must hold ourselves accountable for that.

In 2018, Columbia University observed the 50th anniversary of its (in)famous 1968 uprisings. The way the events are preserved in institutional memory belies Columbia's disapproving and often outright hostile attitude toward student activism in the present—whether it involves students voicing their objection to white supremacist speakers or graduate students demanding their right to unionize.

But Columbia's dual identity is not a coincidence, nor is it a contradiction. It is a conscious branding effort, presented as a dialectic between classical wisdom and youthful idealism, with the uglier parts of their conflict, and the power of the institution over the protesters, always downplayed. This carefully crafted narrative claims to bring about a better university, continuously in creation, that adjusts to changing times without losing sight of the time-honored intellectualism that lingers in its hallowed halls of learning.

Tiffany Dimm is a sophomore at Columbia College majoring in English. She grew up in the cornfields of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where the Amish had long beards and didn’t drive cars before it was cool. She’s involved with Student-Worker Solidarity and Columbia Divest for Climate Justice. One time she ate an entire box of mochi ice cream in one sitting, which she considers among her most defining accomplishments. A Buzzfeed quiz once told her that her French food personality is macaron. If you’re looking for her, she’s probably run off to the nearest woods to chase butterflies and frolic in nature.

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By TIFFANY DIMM

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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