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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

We’re all Mark Zuckerberg

<eally liked The Social Network. I know that might be a little unfashionable, but there’s a scene at the beginning where Jesse Eisenberg wanders home, alone, across the Harvard campus at night, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I saw it. That’s because I think that that experience, of making the long, dark walk home, all alone, pretty perfectly emblematizes the experience of students at elite American universities, including Carleton: it’s difficult, frustrating, stressful, and above all, it’s lonely.

Every Carleton student has made that walk home. All of us have probably heard the 1 AM bell in the libe and had to trudge across a deserted campus, completely alone except for the ominous stone buildings staring down at us. Even the most gregarious of us has moments when all of our friends have gone home to sleep, and we find ourselves with nothing but our backpacks and the façades of Leighton, Willis or Olin to keep us company on the way back to Burton or Nourse. There’s no better symbol for the basic sense of loneliness that I think we all deal with, in one way or another, than that particular walk.
In a basic sense, I think that’s “part of growing up,” like pimples and body hair. The great American cultural narrative tells us that someday we all have to leave home and make our own way, whether we go to college or not, and that necessarily involves confronting some kind of personal isolation. And there’s nothing irreducible about our specific situation — American college students of all stripes have to walk across campus at night once in a while, whether they go to Penn State or RISD or Liberty University. But I do think that the experience is particularly acute at elite school like Carleton, just because of what we’ve had to do to get here.

None of escaped the admissions process unharmed. To get to Carleton, you have to have made sacrifices. In my senior year of high school, my then-girlfriend and I were both on the liberal arts admissions track, and it was just a forgone conclusion that our work was always more important than our relationship. There was never any question. Before we could even talk on the phone we had to have finished our work for our classes, on top of the endless amount of work we had to do for what the admissions industry calls “extracurricular activities.” Human contact — even with people we cared about — was the last thing on our list. And here’s the thing: I didn’t even get into Carleton at first. I was on the waiting list for a month. To get into a school like Carleton, you have to have forced your body to shift its most basic focus from “friends” or “food” or “sleep” to “education.” Every single person at this school has, by necessity, gone through a process that has left them, at least for the next few years, a creature of work.

And I don’t even “stress.” Stress is just what happens when that work is too much. I simply mean that we all have niggling little voices in the backs of our heads that constantly whisper that we have a meeting at 5, a paper due by noon tomorrow, a midterm on Thursday, a presentation on Friday. We run through our days in our heads to see if we’ve missed anything. We gauge how many hours we have left, how much sleep we’re going to lose, if we’ll have time to eat or work out or call our parents, and if we don’t, then there’s nothing to do about it, because the first thing on our minds is always, always, always work.

Loneliness is the inevitable corollary of a lifestyle that values work above every other aspect of life. For all of the good that we get out of our work — and I don’t mean to be condemnatory; the work we do is often personally fulfilling and intellectually stimulating, exactly like it’s supposed to be — we necessarily cut ourselves off from each other. And despite our best efforts to engineer rooms that feel like families, to ease freshman onto campus in New Student Week groups, or to put RAs in parental positions, none of it really feels like a family. Despite our best efforts, we often lack the consistent, intense, organic companionship that human beings require just like they require food or water.

Depriving yourself of a basic need like food, water, shelter or companionship in order to fulfill a personal goal is called asceticism. In willingly assigning ourselves to a life ruled by our work, in the hope that it will bring us fulfillment, influence, enlightenment, success, or whatever we want out of our education, we’re engaging in a kind of mass asceticism. We don’t know why, and we pretend that we’re not doing it at all, but that’s the only word for the kind of institutionalized deprivation we engage in.

I think this is why our “campus community” is so important — and also one of the reasons why we continue to fund Sayles dances in spite of the sexual misconduct and hospitalizations they engender. We need a way to make up for the community we surrender by granting supremacy to our work, a way to compensate for all the long, cold walks home.

I find that the way we manifest this need for community is fairly destructive, in a lot of ways, but I don’t think it’s going to go away — on the contrary, it’s probably only going to get worse the more competitive liberal arts education gets. The key, I think, is acknowledging our isolation from each other and countering it with something systemic. We may be living in a monastery, but we haven’t taken our vows. We need to do something to remind us of that.

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