Every day, I pass by the wise words of former Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings III in Goldwin Smith gatekeeping the entrance to the Temple of Zeus: “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.”
Though I will not argue here about whether the education at Cornell is to be considered genuine or not, I have often thought that if it costs over $60,000 a year to awaken myself, I’d much rather have stayed in bed.
I assume that the notion of a genuine education is tightly linked to age-old sayings like “explore your interests” and “follow your passion.” And I assume that awakening a human being probably involves something more than an alarm clock. The author of the quote I pass each day was probably thinking in more abstract terms of becoming an engaged citizen and a better person.
But isn’t spending a couple hundred thousand dollars to allow clueless 18 year-olds to spend four years removed from society in the pursuit of vague ideas like self-improvement and intellectual rigor just a way to say that you’re rich?
I didn’t come to Cornell to become a better person. I’m not reading novels in my English classes that aren’t easily available from Amazon. I don’t suspect that I’ve uncovered any secrets about biology in any of my required courses. It’s generally agreed across academia, I think, that a tibia is a tibia, that being pre-med is hard and that intro chemistry is a weed-out course.
I came to Cornell because I was accepted, because I received enough financial aid and because it wasn’t the one in Iowa. I came to Cornell because I knew there was something inexplicably impressive about the fact that I learned a tibia was a tibia at Cornell University. It’s in upstate New York. Four hours from New York City. One and a half hours from Syracuse. Lots of pretty waterfalls. Oh, and — gaze averted, modest tone — it’s an Ivy.
And when I utter those magic words — Ivy League — I have previous generations of rich males to thank. The ones that had the ability to explore their interests without worrying about what happens at the end of four years, to read the English canon for the sake of self-improvement and to emerge as citizens of the world. The ones who helped maintain the idea of a university as a finishing school for the elite. Because those are the associations that I assume people make when they hear me say Cornell. They think that I’m metamorphosing into one of those worldly citizens. I’m only half-sorry to report that I’m really just looking for a job.
Hunter R. Rawlings III’s greatest nightmares might be coming true because I don’t think I’m an outlier in my sentiments. I’ve heard more students discuss job searches than Latin syntax. More students talk about their summer internships than about the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. When our former president returns to Ithaca, he’ll find his campus swarming with students that are destroying its intellectual prowess all for the sake of getting an interview. To him, perhaps, he’ll return to Ithaca only to find his vision burning.
But Ithaca isn’t burning; it’s only changing. What Rawlings would see as hellfire springs from the idea that many of us have grown disenchanted with the idea that the university is a place to improve ourselves. At the very least, we’ve become disenchanted with the price tag associated with that improvement. What we saw in Cornell wasn’t the chance to awaken our humanity but the opportunity to access a brand name that would provide us with social mobility — or at least social stability.
And though I don’t deny that I’ve spent countless hours discussing Middlemarch and Beowulf with my professors or that I do believe I’ve improved myself over my time here, I’m not ashamed to admit that I came here, first and foremost, to secure a solid job for myself and to uplift my family by doing so. The University is no longer an Elysium where students with the necessary means can become enlightened human beings. I’m afraid, former president Rawlings, that it’s been made pedestrian by the souls of those that are simply trying to earn a living.
Elite universities like Cornell are now caught between two values systems. On one hand lie the echoes of the upper class — a past in which a student’s goal was to become a citizen of the world. On the other hand is a modern promise of skill-learning and social mobility. The former produces good people, and the latter produces good workers. And though I’d like to become both someday, I suppose that for now, I’ll have to settle — I’ll be keeping Cornell University in its place at the top of my resume.
Hunter R. Rawlings III: Ithaca is here, but it’s no longer the epic destination that you envisioned. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.