Why are Williams students apathetic?

The purpose of this editorial is to express my frustration over what I perceive to be apathy on the part of Williams students. I am well aware of the dangers of making generalized statements about an entire student body and do not mean to suggest that all students fit this category. However, I strongly believe that there is a pervasive atmosphere of complacency that damages students’ educational experiences and inhibits attempts to build a strong community at Williams. I feel that the Williams student body is generally apolitical. I do not mean only that too few people run for political office (although this is certainly part of the larger problem); I am referring to a general sense of disengagement and nonchalance toward many of the issues that affect our lives at Williams.

It seems rather obvious that there are key issues that the student body shies away from addressing. What is even more disturbing is the palpable sense of aversion on the part of the student body to confront such issues.

Concerns involving minority segregation, political participation and administrative policy are examples. I worry that people feel the need either to ignore problems consciously or even to convince themselves that the problems don’t exist in order to “fit in.” Perhaps we feel as if ignoring a problem will prevent it from becoming worse.

The recent debate centering on race relations is one of the very few real open exchanges that I have seen. However, like the recent incidents of homophobic harassment, I fear that people are simply waiting for the affair to blow over, instead of doing something to repair a situation that is clearly in need of attention.

Why do we ignore issues to such a large extent? I think the answer lies in the type of atmosphere that is created at the College. It surprises me that the Williams administration continually attempts to promote an idealistic construct of a Williams “community.” They talk perpetually about the close-knit nature of Williams, and depict the campus as a large-scale extended family.

While the goal of community is admirable, what actually exists is a set of “norms” that characterize the school. These norms include the idea that everyone at Williams is happy, that no serious problems exist that act to divide the “community” and that students are economically well off, preppy and athletic. Significant pressure is placed on individuals to behave or portray themselves within these boundaries.

It is particularly this atmosphere that discourages individuals from defining themselves outside of these norms (for example, defining oneself as being openly gay). Students are encouraged not to focus on differences, but rather upon the ways in which we are the same. Raising extreme viewpoints or questioning administrative structures might immediately act to distance one from the rest of the “community,” and identifying oneself as having a minority viewpoint carries with it the intimidating prospect of being judged by one’s peers as being excessively extreme. We have been literally taught by our environment that having strong opinions (much less controversial ones) is a bad thing.

Even within the classroom, traditionally understood as a safe space for opinions, alternative or politically incorrect views are not always supported. This is another example of how dialogue and engagement with potentially thorny issues is suppressed by an ethos that homogenizes students’ opinions. This lack of freedom in self-definition leads me to feel as if Williams does not celebrate diversity or differences in the way that we would like to believe. I would go so far as to claim that social forces at the College act to mute them.

In my opinion, Williams’ oppressive atmosphere, and the students’ unwillingness to face up to issues that results from that atmosphere, blatantly contradicts the spirit of a liberal arts education. Such behavior goes against the basic tenets of what Williams College is supposed to stand for: active debate, questioning one’s preconceived paradigms and learning for the sake of intellectual growth. On paper, these values may seem silly and archaic, but I believe that the general population’s ignorance of these values is a major reason why Williams does not have a more unified “community,” and is instead fragmented into distinct, isolated subgroups. The lack of dialogue severely limits group interaction, and exacerbates the problem of segregation. Talking about these problems could help to bring groups together and help to unify a divided campus.

In the process of suppressing non-majority voices we also marginalize potentially constructive dialogue. One of the key benefits of going to Williams is the opportunity to learn and engage with our peers. For some reason, the Williams culture, which is geared towards avoiding and silencing conflict, inhibits our ability to raise concerns and deal with them. Because of this, a significant vehicle of learning has been taken away from us. Instead of exchanging ideas about issues, we have been forced to ignore and deny them.

We must realize that all is not well with Williams College, and stop fooling ourselves into thinking that it is. I am not suggesting, however, that everyone at Williams should go out and run for College Council or actively support every cause possible. Hardly so. What I would most like to see is an effort on the part of individual students to at least concern themselves with what goes on at this institution.

Whether the topics are political, sexual, administrative, racial or otherwise, there is a great need for students to communicate more effectively about these issues.

This atmosphere of uninhibited communication is vital to maximizing the benefit of our college experiences, in addition to contributing to a true sense of community. Just as the cycle of stifled opinions and lack of dialogue is self-perpetuating in a negative sense, increased discussion and engagement with important issues will lead to more of itself as well.

And that is what college should be all about.