CHRIS BULFINCH ’18
Around campus, some Trinity students take a less-than-quiet pride in how engaged they are around campus. Pull aside certain undergraduates from almost any major, and they will rattle off a litany of activities, ranging from sports teams to charitable work to student government, debate teams of different stripes, and even the Tripod. Most students of this ideation tend to have stellar GPAs, lined up to graduate cum laude at least.
Opposite to these high-achievers, there are students who have no major extracurricular commitments outside of Vernon Street and for whom class is little more than a chore.
Both of these extremes are problematic. Though they may manifest themselves very differently, the core issue is the same: Trinity has a culture of fake engagement.
William Deresiewicz, in his deconstruction of “elite” higher education, Excellent Sheep, describes modern undergraduates as “superpeople.” Denizens of the elite institutions of higher education, in his estimation, are trained to embody the traits of a Renaissance Man (or, to be more sensitive, Renaissance Person). They have diverse extracurricular interests, strong language abilities in multiple tongues, great grades, and a cool and confident demeanor tailored for the cocktail parties of Greenwich or Manchester-by-the-sea.
The image of well-scrubbed, well-trained young professionals schmoozing and bragging, however politely, should not be a foreign image to anyone who knows “elite” higher ed. These “superpeople” aspire, according to Deresiewicz, to roughly the same four fields: finance, medicine, consulting, and law.
What was once exceptional in undergraduates is the new normal. Fields that used to be just one option among many, are now what almost everyone strives for. America’s professional elite clearly has never been better-staffed.
At the same time, however, rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are on the rise among undergraduates. Suicide rates for young people are up, and both current students and recent graduates describe feeling a lack of purpose.
Are Millennials and Gen-Xers somehow the victims of the pre-professional pipeline, casualties of a rat race designed to uphold the bureaucratic structure of the neoliberal technocracy? I’m not sure I’d go that far. But there is undoubtedly a problem.
Trinity may not be Yale, Harvard, Amherst, or Williams, but it swims in a similar soup. Many of our undergrads come from the same backgrounds as the “superpeople,” and ultimately end up in similar places on the socio-economic and professional spectrums. A common critique of Trinity– that it is populated by the well-heeled country club crowd (a fact substantiated by the New York Times report that Trinity has more “one percenters” than anywhere else), is something of an asset in this context. In the world of networking and “knowing someone,” the current elite can perpetuate its existence without a lot of effort.
As income and wealth inequality widen, and as more and more NESCAC and Ivy League-types compete for fewer and few spots in the rarefied upper echelons, the kind of compulsive overachieving seen around Trinity’s campus is understandable.
The downside of this culture is that students have a propensity to do a number of things badly instead of a couple of things well. It is impossible to carry a five-class course load, participate in a Greek letter organization, two or three clubs, and be an editor on the paper while doing all of those things properly. My sophomore year, more than half a dozen members of The Tripod’s editorial board and writing staff were members of Student Government Association (SGA), with several on the SGA’s editorial board.
Conflicts of interest notwithstanding, all organizations suffered from the divided attention of their members. I would know; I was in both organizations at the time. And, not to slander my editorial team, but this trend persists. Every editor on the paper has at least one other significant extracurricular activity
That does not make for a strong student paper, something that I firmly believe is a good metric to gauge the health of the college. This same principle applies across campus.
Yet, like anywhere else that services upper-class demographics, Trinity also has a certain kind of entitled nihilism. For every student who is hyper-involved, there is another student whose schedule is filled with beer, cocaine, and Xbox. A former SGA president once quipped that 90% of the extracurricular work at Trinity is done by 10% of students. Those numbers, though exaggerated, do not strike me as wholly inaccurate.
The symptoms of this culture, this deep-seated, achievement-oriented anxiety and dichotomy between those involved and not, are apparent. Between 10%-15% of matriculated freshmen will transfer, a rate between double or triple normal transfer rates. Many students reflect that clubs are often poorly-managed, with few initiatives and little imagination. There is an absence of political discussion around campus. A vocal social-justice-oriented left stirs the pot occasionally, but they are small and disorganized. They are usually dismissed with a conservative response that is simultaneously vitriolic and apathetic. The labels “aggressive” and “social justice warrior” speak to this. There is a desire to not engage substantively on contentious or difficult matters, in or out of the classroom.
Due to a campus split between over- and under-achievers, the student body hunkers down into tribes. The sports teams, seniors, and Greek organizations dig into townhouses and Vernon Street, while the more artistically-inclined rally around The Mill, those less disposed to party are into the Fred, or the tamer frats. People go between, certainly, but public spaces on campus are quiet, as are the pages of the Tripod.
Trinity’s institutions will continue to erode as long as this culture persists, and its ranking will continue to go down. Students need to commit to their extracurricular activities; to take seriously the groups they are involved with. “Passionate weirdos” need to make a comeback. People who have an overriding passion need to have the courage, and the institutional support to follow them. People of Trinity need to stop looking over their shoulders at the accomplishments of their peers; to stop cynically resume building and genuinely engage.
The façade that Trinity students, put up of unflappable, uber-accomplished “superpeople” will crumble, one way or the other. Students can voluntarily take it down, by not pretending and starting to engage, or they can wait for it to hit a breaking point.
For the sake of the College, and even for the academy, I hope we can choose quality over quantity.