September 15, 2022

KUBINEC | Cornellians Have Lost the Urge to Rebel

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In 1986, with the US drinking age recently raised to 21, Cornell realized it had to do something about Springfest, the yearly concert on Libe Slope featuring rock music and lots of alcohol. To limit what had just become underage drinking, the school announced that Springfest would be held in a fenced-in area on North Campus. 

A mass movement erupted calling Cornellians to “take back the slope.” Students made t-shirts, plastered up signs and chalked sidewalks urging their peers to boycott Springfest and go to the slope instead. On the day of Springfest, thousands of students flocked to the slope where speakers were set in truck beds and a raucous party ensued.

“It was even drunker than usual,” Daniel Salazar ’86 told me when recalling the event. Slope Day was born out of student rebellion.

But if Slope Day was moved to North Campus in 2022, it’s hard to imagine a similar rebellion playing out. Students would certainly complain to their friends and post about it on Reddit, but it seems that Cornellians have lost the rebellious streak that led students to storm the slope in 1986 or, to use a more extreme example, to take over Willard Straight two decades before.

The loss of rebellion is making us safer. But it’s also making us detached. 

On the topic of loss of rebellion, Professor Tom Hill, Department of Literatures in English, who has been at Cornell since the 1960s, recalled an undergraduate RA giving an orientation talk to freshmen back when Hill was a Risley faculty advisor. 

“He said ‘we’re not supposed to drink beer,’ and he popped open a can and drank it. ‘We’re not supposed to smoke pot,’ he said, lighting a [joint],” recalled Hill. The student was JA’d but seemed unbothered.

“I don’t think that would happen now,” Hill said.

Cornell has gradually become safer and less prone to rebellion over the past few decades. Let’s define rebellion as actions taken in defiance of Cornell’s authority. When the University creates mandates, we tend to comply, particularly if there is a risk of being punished. Hill believes the causes are economic.

“That mini depression we had around 2008 kind of scared people,” Hill said. “People got so uptight about jobs and worrying about their grade point average” reflected Hill, that people became “less rebellious.” 

Humanities majors have been on a torrid decline since the financial crisis, coinciding with a rise in STEM students. Debugging code probably spawns fewer rebels than reading Karl Marx would. 

Cornell’s punishment of fraternities and sororities for non-compliance with university rules chastened the group of students perhaps most interested in rebelling against checks on student life. For better or worse, Greek Life has historically driven the social scene at Cornell; after all, it was fraternities and sororities that led the charge to take back the slope in the 80s. Now, instead of parking beer trucks on the Arts Quad, Greek Life constrains its social leadership to fraternity basements and annexes.

While progressive political protests are common at Cornell, these cannot really be seen as rebellion when Cornell’s population is almost uniformly left-wing

Nobody wants to rebel, rebellions have no leaders and there is increasingly little to rebel against. In one sense, this is a good thing. When Cornell is asking parents to put their children under its care, it has a duty to protect those kids.

Crackdowns on fraternities and sororities have come following harmful behaviors that Cornell is right to punish. “Take back the slope” is a fun story, but young people binge drinking carries a host of consequences which Cornell is right to be concerned about.

“My youth was kind of misspent, I’d say,” Salazar said of his prioritization of social life over academics while in college. Cornell is a world-class university, and counterculture can take away from the purpose of the place, which is learning. And it would be silly to pooh pooh students for choosing high-earning majors — STEM degrees undeniably help Cornellians achieve social mobility. 

But while rebellion may have its flaws, the absence of rebellion is troubling, too. You only rebel if you care enough about something to risk punishment for it. Students who took back the slope or occupied Willard Straight did so out of passion to shape the University. In some sense, rebellion takes a love for Cornell — to care enough to want to see the school be made better. Today’s students are more detached. 

The decline of rebellion is accompanied by a rash of Cornellians who feel dispassionately connected to a school that is a means to a high-paying job and little more. We don’t love this place; we don’t hate it either. Somewhere in Cornell’s rush to shelter us, we’ve lost the ability to care.

Today’s acts of rebellion are antisocial and, more than that, devoid of meaning. During graduation, vandals ripped letters from the Cornell sign in Collegetown overnight. After Ganędagǫ Hall opened last year, freshmen began stealing signs and setting fires in lounges. These acts of rebellion are not only harmful — they don’t mean anything. Our student body has lost the imagination to rebel for any real purpose.

In making Cornell safe, the school has stripped students of their passion for the place. This seems dangerous in its own right — if no one is willing to fight to make Cornell better, how is Cornell ever going to improve?

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.