January 28, 2019

GROSKAUFMANIS | Casual Dysfunction and the College Experience

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So much of the stereotypical American college experience, as it’s packaged in pop culture and the memories of nostalgic alumni, seems to be wrapped up in anticipation — and sometimes the romanticization — of dysfunction.

Even in the age of hyper-attention to self-care, college remains a bubble in which it’s normal, even commendable, to do things like pull successive all-nighters in the name of work or push passions onto the back burner because they don’t fit our notions of productivity. Staying up all night to study is presented as evidence of a strong work ethic, rather than an unhealthy last resort. At Harvard, students in the class of 2022 were even asked to complete an online “Sleep 101” course, designed to help them develop healthy sleep habits in an environment as “competitive and busy” as college.

It is particularly within the context of any work hard, play hard environment, where opposite and sometimes incompatible extremes regarding school and going out are expected to exist simultaneously, that a lot of unsustainable behavior is necessitated. These behaviors, gradually risk becoming normalized even as they become increasingly difficult to maintain.

In movies portraying college, from Made of Honor (in which the opening scene actually takes place at Cornell) to Ladybird, characters who drink to the point of sickness and hospitalization are depicted as representations of typical student behavior. More recent media, like the TV show Grown-ish, continues to capture these classic themes but now offers additional commentary on the prevalence of routine sleeplessness and study drugs on today’s campuses.  College is depicted as a place where recklessness exists in excess, sleep exists in reserve and real life exists in the very distant future.

Campuses, including but definitely not limited to Cornell, are uniquely hospitable to certain behaviors and habits that, if engaged in elsewhere, would likely raise red flags. Drinking is an easy example of this, with approximately half of college students reporting that they binge drink. A difficulty specific to college campuses, however, is that the prevalence of such behaviors makes it difficult to distinguish between issues demanding attention and anomalous behavior confined to a four-year timeframe. Which habits are destructive and which just constitute college fun? Moreover, is there always a difference?

None of this is necessarily unique to our generation.  Kurt Vonnegut ’44, one of Cornell’s most famous alumni, has referred to a similar phenomenon that existed during his time on the Hill, almost 80 years ago. Describing Cornell as a “boozy dream,” Vonnegut recalls, “Being drunk was utterly acceptable. That’s when I first decided this country was crazy.” The statement is light and potentially comedic, depending on how you read it. In a sense, it paints the quintessential college experience as something that’s inherited, passed down from one generation to another with each successive class, in which dysfunction and tradition are linked.

But it also fits into an underlying narrative that normalizes and romanticizes a certain casual recklessness in college settings, a narrative that, at the very least, is worthy of skepticism.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Dissent runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com.