Telling the Mountains from the Molehills

I have very few complaints about my
experience here at Pomona College. I chose this school for the quality of the education
I knew I would receive, the rankings that placed its students among the
happiest in the United States, and the types of people I found myself surrounded with
when I came to visit. 

Unlike many of their Ivy League counterparts, Pomona students seemed to be very, for lack of a better word, real. They did not put
on airs, and they cared about things that truly mattered—you would not find
anybody touting their SAT scores, no matter how impressive they probably were. It certainly did not seem like a place where
students would self-righteously espouse issues and campaigns simply to give
themselves a sense of self-importance. Almost exactly four years to the day I first visited this campus, I have been driven to wonder whether I, placed in a prospective student’s shoes, would form a different impression of
Pomona—one of pettiness.

The discussion that surrounded Kappa Delta’s America
Pub is just one recent example of how, when action is taken hastily from a polarized standpoint, an “issue” can be created where
there really isn’t one. We are all the products of our habits, and Pomona has made a
habit of inflating even the smallest problems into catastrophes. In the esteemed
words of Ron Burgundy, things “escalate quickly” around here. 

When too much
emphasis is placed on little things—a one-time event theme, for example—what
results is a culture of anxiety in which people feel that their every action is being
scrutinized. All mental energy becomes directed toward acting and speaking
“correctly” to avoid offending anybody and setting off a chain of events that culminates
in the inevitable campus-wide email.

There are several
serious issues with such an inflationary culture. First off, it causes a good
deal of people an undue amount of stress. Speaking personally, I know a significant portion of my
day was wasted on this “issue” at a time when I really needed to get some academic work
done—you know, the reason we’re all here. And I sincerely
doubt that trawling an endless stream of Facebook comments that ranged from
“educational” to “America, fuck yeah”  to make sure none of them
crossed the line was at the top of Dean Miriam Feldblum’s to-do list last Wednesday, Feb. 19, yet we, the student body, seem to have insisted
that this should be of primary concern to our administration.

It is admittedly
easy to allow minor problems to snowball into larger ones inside your own head, but
I would hope that we could expect a more balanced and reasonable approach from
the student body of an institution as prestigious as Pomona.

leads me to the second point I would like to make: We must remember that we live in
a relativistic world. This has implications for everything we do, including our
moral judgments and the actions we take based on them. We must be careful not
to cheapen the significance of important issues by placing undue value on truly
inconsequential ones. When you shape a culture in which every little thing
matters, what you end up with is a culture in which meaningful issues are not
given the merit they are due, or worse, not taken seriously. After all, how
can you gauge the relative importance of two things that have both merited a campus-wide email?

most surprising comment of all to me was one that applauded the conversation as
it unfolded, observing that we were seeing the value of a liberal arts
education unfold right before our eyes. It may have been facetious, but if so
it was executed with brilliant subtlety. 

However, I must take the opposite stance. It
is fantastic that our students have a vast knowledge of the social justice
issues implicit in the history of the United States of ‘Murica, and that they are so eager to educate their fellow students. It was always
my impression, however, that the value of a liberal arts education is not so
much about what you know, but rather about your ability to think through issues
and express yourself eloquently. I do not think anyone would characterize the America
Pub debate as elegant. 

Godwin’s Law, a well-recognized rule of Internet debates, states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of
a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100 percent.” I suppose that
the discussion on the America Pub Facebook event page was only following this natural
law, yet it took only a couple of hours before there were quite literally references to Hitler. Before last Wednesday, I never would have expected
conversations between Pomona students to deteriorate to that level. I would hope that it would take us longer than average to reach
“You’re a Nazi,” “No, you’re a Nazi.” Perhaps that, at the very least, is
something that we should strive to achieve. 

Ryan Higgins PO ’14 is majoring in environmental analysis with a concentration in economics. He is an active member of Kappa Delta, and describes himself as a “conscientious patriot.” 

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