Jason Ginsberg: A cautionary tale

Guest Columnist
Thursday, May 26, 2016
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2016

My journey to Brown began with a warning. It was an autumn afternoon, and I was sitting in an attorney’s office close to home. Pulling at the fabric of my suit pants, I was both eager and anxious at the same time. I constantly adjusted my tie in nervous expectation.

Months before matriculating at Brown, this was the scene of my alumni interview, the final leg of my admission process. Fortunately, the interview went well. But after nearly an hour of talking about my interests and hypothetical future in Providence, the alum issued me a warning.

“I know you’ve already applied, but before you make a decision, I must caution you,” he said. “Brown is an independent place, and you have to be prepared to forge your own path.”

The next autumn, while unpacking my things in Perkins Hall (RIP), those words of warning remained with me. Like many other first-years, I had clouded conceptions of what life on College Hill would be like, preconceived fears of a place where students were doing their own thing, where success was measured by each individual’s achievements. What was independence and how would I figure it out all by myself?

Looking back now, I am not surprised that I thought this way. From our first day on campus as Brown students, we are introduced to a curriculum founded on the principle of choice. We are welcomed into a 250-year-old tradition, guided only by our academic interests. For the initial two weeks of every semester — with nearly zero guidelines and no core requirements — we are tasked with picking four courses from a shopping cart of hundreds of possibilities. This can be a daunting task and certainly one worthy of an alum’s warning.

But over the past four years, I have learned that, along with phrases like “arch sing” and “spicy with,” “independence” has its own unique meaning at Brown. As self-guided as we strive to be, each of our individual identities is the consequence of the interactions we have with others.

This is a lesson I experienced first-hand every Tuesday and Thursday evening for the past four years. As a trombonist in the Brown University Orchestra, I spent a lot of time practicing on my own. Some nights I would trek to the studios in Steinert Center, and others — much to the frustration of my roommates — I would set up next to my desk at home.

But music, as I know it, is only resonant in the company of others. Despite all the hours of late-night practicing, the most I could ever produce was an incomplete sound, a single voice in the silent symphony of my mind. It was only in joining the rest of the orchestra that this sound gained volume. Rehearsing with over 100 other students twice per week, my individual part found a place within the larger whole. As my melodies mixed with those of the flutes, as my lines sung with the strings and answered the trumpets, I was satisfied knowing that, in harmony with others, I was creating new meaning through music.

This message continued to echo with me last year, when I enrolled in a course on the “contested narratives” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over spring break, I traveled with 11 of my classmates to Israel and the West Bank. For seven days, we met with human rights activists, journalists and government officials, hearing their separate stories and personal perspectives on the conflict.

For me, one of the most powerful memories from that trip was joining a Palestinian family for Friday night dinner. We talked about politics and our hopes for a peaceful future. Five thousand miles from home, I heard stories that night that I had never had the opportunity to hear before.

Each day of the trip, and each day of our seminar in Sayles Hall, I was exposed to different viewpoints. Though we each had our own opinions coming into the course — our own independent truths — sharing these ideas with one another, we formed a collective narrative. We weren’t resolving the conflict, but talking together, we were creating a new understanding.

Over the past eight semesters at Brown, this same experience has repeated itself again and again. Despite different perspectives and alternative understandings, my greatest moments on College Hill have always been in the company of others. Admittedly, though I have forgotten much of its substance, this shared sense of learning recalls a particular passage from our class’ First Readings book from the summer before coming to Brown: “Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the American Revolution” by Charles Rappleye.

Unable to resolve their disputes, Moses Brown, an ardent abolitionist, and his brother John, a staunch slave trader, turned to a series of letters to express their disagreements. Instead of ignoring each other’s independent ways, they engaged with one another in discourse. And though each remained largely unconvinced by the other, it was in this conversation that John and Moses Brown created a shared legacy. Together, they inspired an academic institution founded on the same spirit of collective inquiry as their own.

As graduation approaches, it is easy to stop and search for meaning in the semesters that have passed. Now, on my way toward the Van Wickle Gates, I can finally appreciate those last words, handed down to me by an alumni attorney in an admission interview, now four autumns ago. Looking back on my time at Brown, it won’t matter that I spent nights alone researching in the Rockefeller Library, or that I played solos for hours in private practice rooms. Years from now, I won’t remember the individual moments but the times we all came together, when we created music from our melodies and understandings from our independent ideas.

These are the moments I will share in the future, perhaps to a prospective student, anxiously adjusting his tie before an interview. “Independence is not a warning but an experience to embrace,” I will say. “It is the self-guided spirit that ties Brown together.”