It’s a scene right out of a classic college film or a rose-tinted admissions propaganda leaflet — a group of college students lazing around a dorm room or lounge, late at night, arguing about politics, philosophy and the meaning of life. It probably figured, to some extent, in your high school visions of what Ivy League life would be like. I know it did in mine.
Moving now into the first days of my final year at Penn, however, I have to say that while I’ve certainly lived out this cliched scene more than a handful of times, it hasn’t been the lifestyle mainstay my orientation-week self thought it would be. There are a lot of reasons why that’s been the case, some cultural and some structural. Much of it is just the ordinary failure of reality to live up to teenage expectations and cultural mythology.
Some of it, though, is that Penn students overall don’t have all that much to argue about. The range of common opinion amongst 18 to 21-year-olds of the coastal elite demographic where Penn has drawn much of your class — and each class before you — just isn’t that broad.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and your roommate will be a conservative Muslim or a right-wing nutjob (read: ever-so-slightly conservative centrist) like me. Statistically speaking, however, a hedge-fund manager’s kid who says he’s a revolutionary intersectional Marxist is about the best you can hope for.
In the months since you received your acceptance letter, a lot of older people have probably been telling you what to do once you got here. At the risk of joining them in unselfconscious inanity, I’m going to pile on, “Don’t settle for rolling your eyes at the hedge-fund Marxist.”
If you’re a kid who wants real discussions about big ideas with people who sincerely disagree with you to be a part of your college experience — and if you’re not, you should be — don’t sit around and wait for those people to show up.
Unless you are the devout Sunni or the die-hard Ted Cruz fan, Penn doesn’t tend to serve up chances to think, talk and argue “big,” so don’t wait around. The sad reality is that the median student here is more than happy to only ever talk to people they agree with or to completely tune out and plug in once ECON 001 recitation gets out on Friday. Don’t fall into that trap. Find the niches where there is real ideological diversity and make yourself a part of them. They do exist.
There will be no shortage of opportunities to join groups of people who think and live like you do. They can be valuable, and I wouldn’t ever suggest you avoid them altogether, but they can also be a trap.
It’s easy to get caught up being part of a tribe, but doing so has its costs. When I look back at some of the moments in which I’ve seemed to be living that college cliche of engrossed discussion, the moments I came away from feeling wiser and more whole, they almost uniformly began as encounters with people whose values, outlooks and lives were drastically different from my own.
Those moments often came by accident, but they never came by chance. They came, predictably, because I found my way into the company of smart people who disagreed with me. They came because I didn’t — by luck more than by wisdom — get hooked on the easy ideological affirmation which is sand in the desert on a modern college campus.
But you, newly-minted Penn freshman, can do one better than I. You have the chance to be deliberate about seeking out disagreement and conflict.
Take an inventory of what you believe, and make it a goal to try each pillar of your own personal faith by fire before you leave this place. If you fell in love with “Atlas Shrugged” in high school and fancy yourself a libertarian, go find a Marxist and talk to her. If you read Mill and are a utilitarian, seek out the most radical deontologist you can find. If you spent your senior year marching for Black Lives Matter, go find someone you think is a racist and talk to them. It’s why you’re here. At worst, you’ll be that much more certain you were right in the first place.
At no other point in your life will it be your full-time occupation to be wrong. It’s easy to waste that chance. Most people do. Don’t.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is alecward@ sas.upenn.edu. Follow him on twitter @talkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.