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A reality check long overdue

Senior column

This year's April Fool's Day issue of The Herald had an article with Brown Director of Admissions Michael Goldberger declaring a muffin in the Blue Room to be "the best muffin ever."

The spoof had resonance for me. I remember sitting on the Main Green in September 2000, missing my girlfriend from home, and listening to Goldberger deliver an uninspired speech about how my class, the Class of 2004, was the best class ever admitted into Brown University. Today, I am part of the fourth best class ever- the three that have entered through the Van Wickle gates after me have all been, statistically, more impressive.

And yet, four years here have convinced me that the last thing most Brown students need is encouragement or congratulations.We are already far too self-congratulatory a group. Most of us have grown up with parents whose support crossed the line into telling us how great we were just a little too often. My mother's own favorite offense is to repeat the story of how my kindergarten teacher predicted I would grow up to be president. (Unfortunately, Mrs. King did not foresee that I would grow up to be a leftist.)

Brown is famous for left-wing politics, but even if the election debate here is between Kerry and Nader, any semblance of anti-status quo-ism is drowned out by the poisonous individualism in the air. While I study Afro-Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon and espouse revolution, I make sure to get a better grade than the guy sitting next to me - what is wrong with this picture?

To be fair, Brown is a place that encourages community in many forms. On the day I heard Goldberger speak about my part in a collective greatness, I spent most of my waking hours with the freshman "unit" into which the University had placed me so that I would have some sense of belonging here. Many of those unit friendships that helped me get through freshman year petered out by sophomore year. But I have found valuable communities here, as I'm sure most of my fellow graduates have, whether they were at the College Hill Independent, at the Brown Student Labor Alliance and among the activist left more generally, or in pockets of the Latino community to which I have sometimes been a hanger-on.

I am grateful for these friends and for these communities. But when I look at the University-run George Street Journal and see that it is supposedly a publication "for the Brown community," I realize I am unsure as to what that community really is. Many times, it feels like a collection of isolated individuals. They may be friendly with each other, and even get together in student organizations, but essentially, everyone thinks of themselves almost completely as an individual.

As a leftist, I find it impossible to defend many of the anti-democratic communist or socialist regimes that saw taking away individuality and individual rights from people as a necessary evil. But there is a difference between, on the one hand, conceding that there is a vital place for individuality in our lives and, on the other, celebrating an individualist worldview. Brown's rhetoric of community, which the school often uses to try to hide its horrendous relationship with the community it finds itself in (the East Side of Providence) is no more than an unfortunate ruse.

The school discusses community, but it fought tooth and nail against making payments in lieu of taxes to the city of Providence last year, after Mayor Cicilline '83 said the city needed Brown's help. The administration discusses community, but Brown is still engaged in a nasty contract fight with library workers who live in the area, and who are just trying to make sure their jobs do not get reclassified or subcontracted out of existence.

Like its self-assured and self-important students, Brown the institution thinks it is too good to worry about what the community has to say. In school propaganda, Brown hails its status as one of the state's biggest employers, evoking an image of a benevolent employer gracing the Ocean State with its presence. But it does not mention the millions of dollars of property that the school is continually taking off the tax rolls; the Sciences Library and other eyesores on the Providence skyline; and the particularly large presence of the Providence Police Department on the East Side, which protects us at the expense of those in areas where gangs actually roam the streets.

I cannot be surprised when an institution like this produces students who complain to deans when they are not awarded Phi Beta Kappa. I know one who did just that this year as a junior-only 30 of his classmates received the honor, and he still has a chance to receive it next year when about 100 seniors are selected, but he complained anyway. We pay obscene amounts of money to go here, and we are the best students ever, so give us what we want, and get out of our way.

I tire of discussions of 'the real world,' but when it comes to entitlement and overflowing self-esteem, I believe some of my classmates are more than overdue for a reality check. And the institution where they have put in four years is, in no small part, to blame.

Peter Ian Asen '04 completed concentrations in Africana Studies and Philosophy.


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