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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Tragedy of the Commons

<s completely different, school would be great.”
-Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Once upon a time, Carleton was a magical place. Dogs and cats were allowed in the dorms. The Cave served real beer, which was legally consumed by freshmen and seldom extracted four hours later by Northfield Hospital. There was no barbed wire around the water tower; there were no smug little plastic prisms in Burton telling you the carbon footprint of your sandwich. Most importantly, the tunnels were open.

This summer, my parents asked me about my life at Carleton. Having seen far too many tuition account statements to tell them the truth (“…I don’t….actually…do…anything”), I tried to explain the CLAP. To my surprise, they seemed to understand it. I wondered why their generation had never established such a thing, and speculated that it was because they were boring. They paused, and then laughed. “Bitch, please,” they said. “We had tunnel graffiti.”

Until 1988, the walls of Carleton’s underground tunnels were a perfect canvas for students to express their hopes, joys, fears, grievances, math jokes, sex jokes, and all of the inane things that make life good. Tunnel graffiti combined the anarchic beauty of Web 2.0 with the sacred beauty of an oil painting: Any student could edit it anonymously every time he or she walked to class, but any contribution could potentially become permanent. This gave it a huge advantage over the CLAP, and instead of poorly executed humor about seniors hating freshmen, one might come across a gem like this:

“God is applied theology is applied philosophy is applied psychology is applied biology is applied chemistry is applied physics is applied math is applied bullshit.”

Last week, my column was substantially more negative than the version I had intended to publish (there were some logistical difficulties with the editors working across time zones). I hoped the sincerity would still come across, but my worst fears were confirmed when a friend overheard a confused freshman say, “Wait…does she like school at all?”

I don’t like Carleton. I love it. I believe it can be so much better than it is.

Here’s the truth: I’m a fifth-generation Carleton student. I never seriously doubted that I could fit in here. But I’m also a transfer student, and coming here was an impulse decision. In 2007, I was at a small women’s college in Northern California that had virtually everything we don’t (sun, varsity crew, a diverse, sexually liberated campus, and access to a real city and a big school). Over spring break, I was stuck there for crew practices, and realized what was missing. Yes, men. But not in the dorms – shockingly, class discussions were incomplete without them. And incidentally, Carleton had a late transfer application deadline.

It was a light at the end of the tunnel where my social and academic worlds could finally meet. This was exciting, but it also made me impatient. The student body’s ‘playful sense of humor’ only seemed to show up in a social scene that resembled my sophomore year of high school (i.e., cliques and incompetent drinking).

As it stands, Carleton tries to enforce student bonding with mandatory meal plans and on-campus housing (a brilliant strategy before cell phones and Facebook). They’ve also banned exclusive organizations like fraternities, and any activity “which endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student, or which destroys or removes public or private property, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group or an organization.”

This is their definition of hazing, but it could easily describe an elite liberal arts education. In exchange for a ticket to the upper middle class, we pay colleges to make us learn things that are too boring to learn on our own.

No one likes to admit this. It’s easier for students to worry about grades and parties than ennui, and it’s easier for Carleton to worry about our study habits and wellness than their teaching or advising methods, so they bug us about academic rigor, and we cope with collective alcoholism, and we all tend to forget why we’re here.

I’m not proposing that we bring back fraternities. However, we need to recognize that in their absence, Carleton has adopted some of their values quite irresponsibly. For example, consider our mission statement: “Faculty, staff, and students respect one another for the serious work and the playful humor we share, and we support each other in pursuing a healthy balance of mind, body, and spirit.”

First, I’ve never met a single student who did not at some point sacrifice their body and/or spirit for schoolwork, and to deny this is unnecessarily cruel. Second – playful humor? What if a loved one dies, or you get sick, or experience some form of human suffering, and temporarily lose your playful sense of humor? Do you stop belonging at Carleton?

Finally, we need to confront interdepartmental competition. In my opinion, it is one of the most harmful and least discussed problems in higher education. Many professors do not seem to realize the danger of belittling other academic fields in front of 18-year-olds who don’t have Ph.D’s or a clue about their futures. This self-indulgence it encourages intellectual chauvinism, it makes students feel guilty about their passions, and it turns introductory courses into recruiting contests and underclassmen into meat. At a school that claims to embrace the liberal arts, this is inexcusable.

When Carleton’s tunnels closed, we lost a priceless reminder that generations of students had hearts as well as minds. Twenty years later, student alienation is worse than ever. The solution is not to placate us with clever library signs and Schiller photo ops, but to leave Carleton’s soul where it has always belonged – in the hands of students.

-Hannah Watson is a Carletonian columnist

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