Four o’clock Friday afternoon at Manhattanville. Climbing holds, buckets of them, splashed across the wall; thousands of holds, black, forest green, lime green, emerald green, green-blue, light blue, light magenta, flamingo, flame-kissed red, red-orange, orange, grasped by grad students and young professionals. You can’t tell if the shrieks that just pierced the chalk cloud hanging over the gym came from children here for a class or MGMT’s hit song “Kids.”
I’ve been dying to write what I’ve called in my head the “Climbing Column” for ages. It’s just that after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I hadn’t returned to climbing in a meaningful way until recently. And what a blessing it is.
When life is stressful, there are few better ways to blow off steam than to get on the wall and crush some bouldering routes. Climbing is an outlet, a craft, a sport that blends physical endurance with technical ability and creative problem-solving. I could easily write an ode to climbing. More interesting, though, is what it tells us about the role of a university education—and if you'll bear with me, it says a lot.
What I talk about when I talk about climbing is not the stuff of Alex Honnold’s insane free-solos, nor is it even about bouldering outdoors. What I mean is the expanding constellation of old warehouses retrofitted with climbing walls, fitness centers, and, in some cases, even saunas and cafés. Maybe you’ve been to one of them, like nearly 8 million Americans last year.
Many of those 8 million almost certainly comprise the children's birthday parties and the families looking for entertainment on rainy Saturday afternoons that make the bread and butter of the climbing gym industry. The sport’s broad appeal starts with the idea that no two individuals’ solutions to a problem are identical and presumes a vast capacity for self-improvement by anyone interested in learning. And so, climbing gyms welcome everyone from amateurs to the conquerors of V15s and 5.15s—believe me, no small feat.
The owners of these facilities have tapped into something lucrative: an upper-middle class with leisure time, the desire to work out, and a disposable income to match. The first climbing gym opened in 1987 as a grungy, underground, questionably safe venture. Today there are more than 500 across the United States, many outfitted with luxury amenities.
These gyms sometimes feel like the embassy of some tiny Pacific Northwest republic—indie pop beats pump you up, staff wear beanies, and everyone’s super chill. You eventually notice, though, that many climbers speak with a slightly affected patter. My theory is that climbers are the thoughtful, well-read, slightly nerdy, thoroughly adorable folks who outgrew their previous social awkwardness. Call it the revenge of the nerds.
I think this begs comparison with our school. Columbia, shall I compare thee to a climbing gym?
Climbing gyms, like universities, require significant amounts of capital to cover land and operating costs. At Manhattanville, Steep Rock West pays rent to Columbia, which is among the largest landowners in New York City. Setting up shop there is a smart move. Proximity to our campus practically ensures a steady stream of revenue, which shows why most major urban centers in America boast at least one. Their clientele is located in cities, by universities, and around other drivers of the modern economy. Like Whole Foods, SoulCycle, and top universities, climbing gyms stand as monuments to the cultural clout of the upper-middle class.
Universities and climbing gyms both offer the latest amenities, though at vastly different scales. Elite institutions offer an all-in-one academic, domestic, and social experience (fittingly, some universities even offer climbing walls in their own gyms). The comparison that comes to mind is the futuristic, luxury climbing palace that opened in Massachusetts earlier this year—it’s part Ritz, part starship. Impressive features inevitably jack up the price of membership, dictating who joins.
Both the University and the climbing gym cater to what Matthew Stewart recently dubbed the “New American Aristocracy,” or the top 9.9 percent of wealth holders in the United States. This group holds the swankiest jobs, inhabits the nicest neighborhoods, and, most significantly, is characterized by its members’ level of education. They (we?) make up a disproportionate share of Columbia’s student body, and, I’m sure, a similarly large share of climbing gym memberships.
Everyone’s got a special five-point plan to fix our education system and restore social trust and save meritocracy. That's all outside the scope of this column. But I’ll offer a closing thought on our status quo.
As I wrote about finance recruiting in my last column, our generation—particularly the children of the New American Aristocracy—is especially risk-averse and fearful of failure. In one sense, the padded flooring of the climbing gym captures that ethos. When you fall (and you always will) there’s a cushy landing below. Yet you also learn to refocus yourself, get back on the wall, and continue to work on your project.
And accidents happen, even in the gym. That indoor environment is certainly less rugged than the outdoor equivalent, but I think there's still something to be said about the development of character and learning look to the next thing after a setback. It’s programmed into the sport.
Can we say the same of education at an elite university today?
Jimmy Quinn is a General Studies junior studying political science in the dual B.A. program with Sciences Po. Get in touch with him at email@example.com or on Twitter @realjimmyquinn. Short Views runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.