September 1, 2014

GLICK | Peering Outside the Ivory Tower

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It’s been only a few days since our arrival on the Hill, and all our worlds have once again been squeezed back into the comfortable bubble between Collegetown and RPCC. For those of us older and more nostalgic, there is nothing cozier than the reassertion of collegiate order in our lives; we cherish equally each fleeting interaction at Olin and at Dunbars, because we have come to the bittersweet realization that we are now making memories that will have to last us a lifetime. For new students — blissfully unbothered by fears of impending adulthood — the rush of Cornell life has created a universe all its own, fueled by each new addition to an iOS Photo album and unfurling into an endless future. But as students old and new are swept up in this fever dream that is Cornell, the outside world looms even more threateningly on the horizon than does my graduation.

As we packed up our bags in May, we left behind a campus in the throes of conflict. Student activism had sparked a politicized conflagration, which dragged a half-unwilling student body into the thick of important and often rancorous debates. There has been — and will be — much more said about the implications of last spring’s activism, but there is scarcely now a trace of it. A rally held by Students for Justice in Palestine Friday was tamer and less eventful than one would have expected, given that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so severely aggravated since SJP’s calls to action last semester. An article in The Sun detailing how President Skorton’s pledge to maintain free first-year bus passes may not be so easily maintained was met with neither mass student mobilization nor even with a flurry of grievances in the online comments section. Cornell’s hyper-engagement with internal and external affairs seems to have waned for the moment. While this may give our bruised body politic a much needed chance to heal, the lull is almost more frightening than the drama of last spring.

Perhaps this momentary aversion to re-politicizing our campus discourse is something that runs deeper than a lingering O-Week hangover. The world outside our Cornell bubble has never seemed more frightening. Everywhere, things seem to be slipping backward. Russia — led by a megalomaniac “Vladimir the Great” — has refused to back down in its confrontation with Ukraine, making NATO tremble as 20 years of post-Cold War bliss is threatened. In Israel and in Gaza, the conflict that so many Cornellians (myself included) debated last spring in a lofty, almost theoretical tenor resurfaced once more to extract its bloody price. As rockets flew and civilians fell, the hopes for progress faded away into the realities of a struggle that looks more terminally tragic with each passing flare-up. And in the ancient cities of Iraq, the dark fantasies of ISIS has added an almost unbelievable sense of desperation to the nation whose fate will be forever tied to the limits of 21st century American power. The relative order of the post-9/11 era — in which terrorists cower in isolated mountains while all reasonable nations set aside old rivalries to root them out — looks as if it is coming undone. So perhaps we are afraid.

We have returned to — or have first arrived at — Cornell with aspirations that undoubtedly intersect with the outside world. But the stubbornly tumultuous nature of this summer’s news briefs perhaps tempts us to cordon off our own relatively untroubled youths from the Ebola-ridden, rocket-scarred wasteland of “elsewhere.” Cornell, with its picturesque towers and spine-tingling alma mater, can easily fall prey to this type of mental insularity. It’s much easier to bemoan the crackdown on Collegetown parties than to debate the Middle East. But that is not Cornell’s mission.

The first lecture of the (highly, highly recommended) course meant to celebrate the second half of Cornell’s 150 years closed with Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, reciting the quotation found on the oddly ornate gateway that towers over the rather squalid environs of Collegetown’s Eddy Street. The quotation — which we’ve all walked past countless times, though not usually in the mood to be reading it — states: “So enter, that daily thou mayest become more learned and thoughtful. So depart, that daily thou mayest become more useful to thy country and to mankind.”

Even at the moments in which we are perhaps least likely to thinking about the wider world — either hurrying from Collegetown to class, or from a party on Buffalo Street to one on Oak — the spirit of Cornell, manifested in the carved stone of the Eddy Street Gate, reminds us that the vision of our University has always been grander than the  four-year dream it grants us. The legacy of Cornell is not simply one of amassed wisdom, but of heightened utility as well. However uninviting the globe might seem at this moment, our campus cannot afford to lock the door to our ivory tower and wait until ISIS falls, Putin blinks and a seaside resort opens in Gaza. We, like generations of Cornellians before us, are here because those problems exist, not in spite of them. So as we embark on another year of living and loving and learning on the Hill, we must remember that our University has only become what it is today because of its ability to combine our lust for knowledge and for a “college experience” with a measure of insight that we are all here not only for ourselves, but for our “nation and [for] mankind.”

Jacob Glick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.