February 29, 2012

Revisiting the Bigger Picture

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You know you’ve made it big when you’re the subject of a meme. I don’t think there is a better way to define success. As most of you are likely aware, about a month ago I wrote an article about program houses. Considering that I typically get a grand total of about two comments on my columns, I expected to get around 20, because I was actually writing about something of substance (I’ll admit it, I normally write about nothing). Apparently I touched a nerve, because the most recent tally showed 112 comments.I read every one of the comments and what I saw was disappointing and saddening. Most striking was that the majority of the people who criticized my column argued that program houses provided comfort to the people who live there. Cornell is a community. If we as students cannot make it one where everyone feels comfortable, then we are failing as Cornellians.The fact that many people feel more comfortable around those similar to them is not surprising, but we are all people who want to learn, be happy, successful and grow. In that way, there is no culture, race or common interest that divides us. Why is it that we must apply labels to people when we initially meet them? Why not simply look at one another as fellow human beings? I cannot see any sensible reason. The fact that we still need to divide our community into smaller and smaller pieces to make everyone feel comfortable is a poor reflection on everyone who calls Cornell home.I have no good solution for this problem. I don’t have the experiences that might offer the best solution to the interracial dialogue problem we seem to have. I have certainly gained perspective since writing the article, especially from the several people who asked to meet with me, but even though these discussions have forced me to re-evaluate my beliefs, I have not changed my opinion.  I still believe that program houses hinder the integrity of the Cornell community.There are other dividers at Cornell as well. People divide themselves in to Greek houses, separate themselves based on sexual orientation or define themselves in a hundred different ways. It is a shame that so many people, myself included, are content to live within our self imposed boundaries. It is a shame we have no desire to explore the world around us and talk to people with different ideas. What stops us from feeling comfortable going to a home that isn’t our own? Is it that we haven’t been invited? Maybe we are afraid we will learn something that would cause us to second guess our world view. I think we all just need to grow up a little and stretch our comfort zones.

As a statistics major, I couldn’t let this article go without crunching a few numbers, so I looked through the comments on my program house article again and found that of the 112, only five included invitations to attend an event at a program house. That’s about 4.5 percent. (Though to be fair it is 4.5 percent more comments than those of people interested in attending program house events). How can anyone expect any divisions in a community to get better if only four and a half percent of people take the time to make changes? It’s impossible. I spent a semester in New Zealand, where because of nuclear submarines and trade embargoes, they do not like Americans very much. While I was there locals would ask me questions about the United States that seemed unfounded and ignorant. Maybe they were. But that didn’t mean that I decided to ignore them. I made an effort to change people’s preconceived notions about Americans. It wasn’t my job to do this, but if I didn’t do anything, how could I expect the situation to change?

I will certainly admit that I am not the most culturally versed person on this campus, and there are many things of which I am ignorant. I had no control over where I grew up or that I went to a very monochromatic high school. What I do have control over is what I do now. Arun Gandhi gave a speech in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in which he said, “Today we have built so many walls between people, that we have forgotten that behind those walls there is a human being. We’ve got to break down all those walls. We’ve got to begin to look at each other as human beings and that is when we will truly be able to create a society that is compassionate, understanding and living in harmony.” As Cornellians, we need to work together to build our community in the way we want to see it. If we don’t like the way that something is, it is not only your job or my job to fix it, it is not only the majorities’ or the minorities’ job to fix it, it is our job to work together to make the change. We are all just as much at fault for the problems in the here and now.Why not break down the walls of the program houses and the other walls we have built around ourselves? Let us foster and celebrate all the cultures at Cornell in the dorms, Greek houses and Collegetown apartments. We are better and more open minded than society at large, and we should act that way. Maybe I am completely missing the mark or maybe I am just taking a baby step in the right direction. Regardless, my goal has never been to insult anyone. My goal has always been to raise an issue that affects the health of our community. We all live here, and we all need to face this together.

Will Spencer is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at wspencer@cornellsun.com. Tripping Up Stairs appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Will Spencer