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Spring 2012 Columnist headshots Credit: Zachary Bell , Justin Cohen

Rush is here. Club sign-ups have befallen campus. Let’s make some friends.

A few things first: If you want to be my friend, all you have to do is impress a group of upperclassmen, go through an initiation process to ensure that you subscribe to our hierarchy, then perform duties and perhaps pay money so that we can maintain our traditions. Why would it be any other way?

Like the turf sheet that covers Penn Park, the social structure at this university is devastatingly inorganic. Students are identified by the activities and clubs that they associate with. These stand in as symbols for their character, because everyone is a bit too busy to just talk to someone without getting a proxy personality screening via resume.

Many organizations like Greek chapters and senior societies, but also application-based service groups including pre-orientation programs, have a vertical rather than horizontal social hierarchy. It’s far less important that your fellow applicants or rushes want to befriend you even though they would end up spending the most time with you. What matters most is that the older bearers of social wisdom are impressed by your witticisms and dance moves.

This means that ultimately many of your best friends (and mine) are determined by elders. I’m sure that many of us have a friend who became less relevant when she or he did not get into the organization that you both applied to.

An organic social atmosphere, by contrast, is determined solely by individuals who comprise it. A freshman finds another freshman that she gets along with and they introduce each other to individuals that they get along with, compounding their social circle.

In many small liberal arts colleges, or very large universities that cannot fit everyone into one structure, this is the norm: I like you, you like me, come meet other people I like, let’s get drunk and start a social scene.

As is true for most inorganic products, this system may have some negative consequences for us and our (social) environment. If we rely on existing structures to define our social lives, we may miss out on the imaginative aspect of socializing.

Why frat parties or bars? Why alcohol? Why the crappy music? I’m sure this doesn’t apply to everyone, but many refuse to think about going tubing on the river, writing slam poetry, watching the live action role-playing at Clark Park or painting the Philadelphia skyline.

By failing to be imaginative in our free time, we may forget how to “play” altogether. We risk turning into consumers of social fun rather than producers of it.

While inorganic structures pervade many institutions, particular aspects of a university complicate this structure.

College is transient. Each incoming class can be compared to a generation in the real world and has the power to redefine its culture every year. Yet many of us internalize the values of inorganic social structures and continuously reproduce the social scene, whether or not we really liked it to begin with.

You were hazed, so you haze. You saw senior societies interrupt shows with chants, so you do it. The people you looked up to got drunk four nights a week, so you do too. There is no objective “cool” — we decide what it is every Saturday night.

What is especially concerning is that many social commitments at Penn are marred by the familiar symptoms that disease the entire institution: the symptoms of pre-professionalism.

Before students have houses off campus and establish foundational friendships, they are forced to consider choices of social determinacy — to pledge or not to pledge — a set up that is eerily similar to the all-too-early dichotomous choices of career determinacy — to OCR or not-to-OCR.

These are difficult structural patterns to break. They require us each to be independent thinkers when considering our social spaces.

As a freshman, I chose the guaranteed community and the institutionalized comfort of a social calendar. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I’m saying that I didn’t try to imagine something different.

I’m not sure what the answer is (maybe more co-ops) but I’m looking for people to play with. When considering your social calendar this spring, maybe schedule in some organic fun.

Zachary Bell is a College senior from New Haven, CT. His email address is zacharyabell@gmail.com. Critical Playground appears every other Tuesday.

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