September 14, 2020

WU | Any Sheep, Any Study

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In my poetry class last semester, our second unit of study was “The Weird.” Our homework was incredibly vague — write a poem or two that is weird, with only one stipulation: No mythical creatures, supernatural beings or magic. Our weird poems had to be about ordinary things. The goal was not to look at things that are different, but to look at things differently. (I wrote about California rolls.)

Fast forward a couple months into the pandemic: I’m reading Excellent Sheep by former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz, and “The Weird” appears again. In his book, Deresiewicz laments the dearth of “passionate weirdos” on today’s elite college campuses.

Deresiewicz writes, “The [college] system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” We are a generation of students afraid to look at things differently.

As students at an elite college, we have the ability, more than most anybody else, to chase whimsical curiosities and random tangents — and yet, we don’t. Instead, we find ourselves siloed into distinct boxes — pre-med, pre-law, pre-consulting, pre-facebook, etc. And we are great at competing in those few arenas; we got into Cornell, we get good grades and we can get that internship at Goldman Sachs. But when someone asks us why we want to go into consulting or become a doctor? Our answers sound fake and rehearsed. Because they are.

These prestigious careers all have one thing in common — a competitive application/recruitment process. Like getting into Cornell, getting that job or getting into that school reaffirms that indeed we are among the best, even if we aren’t genuinely passionate about what we do. After all, we’ve been trained to seek prestige, not intellectual fulfillment. Or more accurately, we’ve been trained to seek prestige as intellectual fulfillment. Very rare are the passionate weirdos. We’ve become perfectly groomed and incredibly boring.

Our addiction to achievement is reflected in our intense study culture and bleeds into our extracurriculars. Memorizing amino acids for the MCAT until 2 a.m. Polishing a phony application for some exclusive pre-professional frat. Attending a dreary networking session. And many, many case interview rehearsals. We will do everything it takes to be the best, but we aren’t learning a thing. Rather than tending to our curiosities, we let them wither to the demands of being a good pre-professional. Meanwhile, “The Weird” is reserved for poetry class, at the periphery of our college careers.

I wish I could write, “Explore your curiosities! Follow your dreams!” But I can’t. Now more than ever before, with the ongoing recession and abysmal job markets, students are feeling the pressure to obtain practical degrees that lead to well-paying jobs. In his song “Sometimes,” rapper Rich Brian summarizes it perfectly: “My daddy told me happiness is something that you create, but I ain’t feeling so creative lately.”

As a soon-to-be-graduating senior, I think almost daily about my potential futures: pharm school, med school, research assistant, corporate employee, good food, hopefully a nice apartment. But then I remember Deresiewicz’ own story: A disillusioned biology major turned law school dropout turned miserable journalist who finally dared pursue English seriously. For him, the safe routes were all dead ends. He succeeded where he couldn’t see future jobs or a stable income. What would our futures look like if we took the risk on our less prestigious dreams?

Lei Lei Wu is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Get Lei’d, and the column will run alternate Mondays this semester.