The reality of a common language

Most Ephs suffer from career indecisiveness. This should be of no surprise: many of us choose this bastion of the liberal arts because we do not know what we want to be. Here, we can embrace our indecisiveness under the auspices of the liberal arts, convincing ourselves that our inability to choose a career is, in fact, preparation for living in a free democracy; that our nightmares about the Office of Career Counseling are, in fact, essential to our personal development. What formerly had been the bane of our existence becomes the subject of our pride. “Ha ha, Wharton graduates,” we say, “yours is the Dick Cheney of educations; my four years of liberal immersion, in contrast, is the Barack equivalent.” With our freedom of choice, we say, “Yes we can! Yes we can go on to have fulfilling lives imbued with the discretion that accompanies knowledge of the Great Books; yes we can avoid financial quagmires with our understanding of ethics; yes we can beat you at Trivial Pursuit!”

Central to this line of argument – one that I profoundly believe in – is the notion that we know what is better for us. In other words, we emerge more enlightened from an experience that we have helped to construct than from one that has been imposed upon us. A major with less structure and more election, from this viewpoint, is better. So, to bring the critique into the purple bubble, it is worthier to be a philosophy major, where there are only three requirements, than it is to be a political economy major, where there are at least seven required courses. It also makes sense, according to this rationale, to reject a double major in favor of a single major, allowing yourself the ultimate flexibility in course selection. Mostly, do not be pre-med.

The appeal of a loosely structured curriculum emerges, in part, from its appearance of maturity. Throughout high school, due to the demands of secondary institutions like Williams, students are given no command over their academic development. At my high school, at least, students were granted but one opportunity to mobilize their agency, a choice between home-making and wood-working. At Williams, you can take a course on magic.

But with this endless rhetoric of snowballs and building community, I have begun to wonder whether this individualized approach has its pitfalls. How is Sofia, an art studio major with a propensity for wolves, to relate to Kate, an economics and history virtuoso who really likes the concept of reserves? Perhaps the Purple Valley is simply a huge expanse of bowling allies, and we are all just bowling alone (or, to use a vocabulary that will not alienate Div. III majors, perhaps we are all stuck in our own monkey carrels in Sawyer Basement).

This illustrates my point exactly: without a common language, how are we to build a community? If I think of my crushes in terms of realist theory and billiard balls, and you think of your crushes in terms of acids and bases, then how are we to discover that we are into one another? Or, more to the point, why would you ever be into me? Some will say, inevitably, that we build community in diversity. But that makes Williams like multicultural Canada – and, as much as I love the idea of a “cultural mosaic,” I do not find it particularly convincing. It also, from what I have observed, does not seem to accurately reflect the facts: while only 61 percent of Canadians feel “very proud” of their country, I am guessing that a lot more Ephs are very proud of the purple cow. There clearly is something more than unity in diversity at work.

The natural answer would be that we share an experience in common – one punctuated by a party on a lawn, a walk up a mountain, a month devoted to a season, two days of cape-wearing and several chances at dances. This argument has some traction but, still, something is missing. After all, some of us are too taken with First Days to go to Morty’s party, and some of us are too inebriated for graduation to count, and for some of us, chances at dances just do not materialize.

So what is it that makes these four years shine so bright in our memories? I suppose our community’s coherence, our common language, emanates from our capacity for inquiry. It is our ability to think critically, rather than any shared body of knowledge, that brings us together. It was in this vein that the faculty rejected a proposal for a required “Great Works” course in 1979. It is also probably why, when President Harry Garfield introduced our current progressive curriculum (where 100 level courses lead into 200 levels and so forth), students threatened to strike. We like our introductory courses, and we like our liberty. We like that, if we could agree on a common narrative, E.J. Johnson would play narrator.

Anouk Dey ’09 is a political science major from Toronto, Ontario.