“Loneliness should not be avoided. It acquaints you with yourself.”
I had been explaining to the mother of a prospective student with a head for the humanities that Penn can be an isolating place for people who read books. Her response in praise of a certain kind of aloneness was wise. Such respect for loneliness is antithetical to the culture of the community in which we students live. Penn conditions us to devalue time spent inside ourselves. Our environment instead teaches extraversion and outer-directedness. We grow networks, not inwardness.
Every student who has been introduced by Penn friends has heard herself flattened and gift-wrapped into a litany of LinkedIn-worthy platitudes. We are not supposed to be unique; we are supposed to be digestible and impressive and an inventory of status attributes. An undergraduate’s four years here are spent syncopating our rhythms to the rhythms of the (usually elite, usually wealthy) ecosystem into which we hope to integrate. We are constantly aspiring toward, or working to maintain, membership. Membership in any group requires at least a minimal erosion of individuality, but in our booming networks, we are systematically, harshly sanded down.
Our essential attributes are the external ones. We are our connections. Pressure to prove that we are a profitable connection, that we may be useful to know, is ubiquitous. We commodify ourselves, our friends, even our families.
Alienation is poison for a networker. Uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, distinctiveness, eccentricity — it is all disconcerting. Instead we choose conformity, in a spirit of premature worldliness. We are what a writer once called “the herd of independent minds.” We must never stand outside of a framework. We only relate to one another through socially accredited frameworks which are outfitted with their vernaculars, styles, and value systems. All interactions among Penn students are mediated. Alien behavior is immediately detectable and scanted. Outsiders are ignored because outsiders are not profitable. This transactional culture is pervasive and powerful. Consider this: If I were to sit on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art reading Marquis de Sade (Google him), it would not take long before some stranger struck up a conversation with me. If I were to do the same thing on the steps of College Hall, passersby would assume I had not heard of Course Hero.
Think of the Penn interpersonal philosophy as SparkNotes for human beings. Best to reduce ourselves to the content that is essential for us to gain and maintain membership, which of course can later be important for success. Best to present as a brand, not a human being. Just as Penn students are trained to read literature, philosophy, and history as if the material is only relevant to their transcripts (rather than their faith, lifestyle, worldview, etc.), Penn students are trained to relate to one another as if relationships are only relevant to our position within our network. In our social relations, we are fanatical utilitarians.
The networking way of life is supposed to be good for our future. But the joke will be on us: Our world is like this, but the world is not like this. Our networks are artificial worlds into which Penn grants us entry. They prepare us for nothing outside of them. We learn to operate only within our bubble. We are dead to the distinction between the artificial knowledge accrued within our network and the human wisdom won through unrigged and unmediated human experiences. Human experiences stretch our imaginations, our compassion, and our minds; networking demands all those fundamental muscles lay fallow. If, at the end of our four years, we choose to step out of the network, we will discover that we are lost and incompetent.
Of course most of us will not make that choice. We will stay in what we know. Forced giggles, hours of small talk, and thousands of tuition dollars have secured our spot inside. When we graduate, we will transition smoothly from one parcel of our network to another. Structurally, very little will change. The names and faces within our former context will be exchanged for new ones, but they will be absorbed into the protective categories, into the club and the posture, that we already possess. We will continue to be insulated from the outside world. We will shun adventure, foreign beauty, doubt, serendipity, and fear. We will not be lonely, but we will not know ourselves.
CELESTE MARCUS is a College junior from Lower Merion, Pa., studying intellectual history.
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