Brown is the bubble on College Hill, a sanctuary from the harsh realities of the world. But this supportive and welcoming veneer can often obscure us from the true purpose of college: Brown is one big testing ground.
Brown? A testing ground? Uh oh, will the exams be curved?
Yes, my comrades, Brown is a testing ground, and no, the exams won't be curved. You've probably been living a lie.
The testing ground's infrastructure is provided and controlled by the University: policy, food, residences, support services, maintenance staffs, police and so on. This creates a stable environment for the four-year period of testing to commence.
We are then left to roam free (like lab rats) and the environment works its magic: we "test," and are "tested."
We "test" because college is meant to be a time of experimentation.
As the University provides and controls the infrastructure of the testing ground, students are left with few responsibilities. Indeed, students aren't necessarily responsible for anything but their physical wellbeing, academics and employment while at Brown, and even the latter could be voluntary. In fact, we probably had more responsibilities before we came here.
This lack of obligation provides students with the freedom to "test" themselves. Students can join a variety of groups and clubs, try out different jobs and areas of study. The opportunities are varied and immense.
This freedom to test is augmented by the fact that the air of experimentation on campus mitigates any serious consequences for our actions. For example, students can suddenly stop going to a group or club; they can quit their job, and rest assured that they can find another one; they can fail an exam or take a random course, and not worry about it ruining their lives — even NCs don't show up on their external transcripts. Students are thus absolved of any real accountability, and can casually make and break commitments.
With this immunity it is certainly conceivable that one might be compelled to over-indulge "testing" at Brown, though I find that students are generally good about weighing future considerations — for good reason, since while an individual success or failure might not make a difference in the long run, successive successes or failures certainly add up. Having a particularly low GPA, despite Brown's ridiculous views about calculating GPA, will not bode well when you're applying to jobs. So we are "tested."
That we test and are tested, however, creates some tension, as they are often in conflict. Frequently we are faced with a choice between fulfilling a boring concentration requirement to demonstrate competency and experimenting with a course in a completely foreign department; a simpler example might be the choice we face between partying on a weekend and working.
To achieve the ideal college experience one would think we ought to strive to balance the two. I think that's a good goal to have, but with a qualification.
In the real world, we will have responsibilities, and there will be serious consequences for our actions. We won't be able to just quit our jobs without notice and then expect to find employment again the next day, or fail at work and not worry about being fired. Simply put, we won't be able to afford to test in the real world.
On the other hand, we will be constantly tested. Every day we will be challenged by the ruthlessness of the world, and I have no doubt that our being tested in college will help us tackle those challenges. This is not only true because it forces us to get smarter, which makes us more qualified to face whatever lies ahead, but because it prepares us for the test-based real world environment.
The latter cannot be said for "testing." In fact, "testing" does quite the opposite: it lulls us into a false sense of irresponsibility and immunity, so that when we enter the real world we will have irreparably habituated the testing mindset.
Granted, testing certainly serves its purpose. The freedom and impunity it provides may motivate your development as a person, or generate new passions and interests. But that purpose should be lower down on the priority list than being tested, which is what's relevant in the long run. So let us firmly root ourselves in the testing ground, and in that steadfastness endeavor to find balance.
Jared Lafer '11 is a philosophy concentrator from Manhattan. He can be reached at jared_lafer (at) brown.edu