In a recent discussion section of my history course, the teaching assistant running the section asked the class if we thought that there would ever be a community or political entity that would put an end to the strife that grips our world today. The argument ran that if there was no defined "other," then there would be no need to blow oneself up in a market square, to hijack a plane or to occupy a distant nation. The sense of the "other" is distinctly confrontational, as any literature class at Brown will demonstrate. If we could end the cycle of oppression-rebellion-oppression, the world's ills may fall by the wayside over time.
The class came up with only two situations in which the people of the world would set aside their deep-seated prejudices and conflicts in the interest of the common good of the planet and of one's fellow humans — alien invasion of Earth and global capitalism. Only the fear of imminent death at the six hand-flippers of the legions of Zarquon could make the people of this planet stop stealing cars, firing rocket-propelled grenades and questioning the role of unions.
Then the TA brought the issue home for us — was there even a community at Brown? Was there any sort of cause or commonality that brings to bear the power of the incredible campus diversity that the Admission Office touts at every turn? The students sitting in a circle on the Main Green could only look at each other in futile thought. "Spring Weekend," one student muttered under his breath. To laughter, another offered, "Fish Co. going under."
It was a little disheartening to see myself and my classmates flounder in the face of such an simple question. Why are we all here? Not in the philosophical nature of the question, but why are we all at Brown? Are we here to make sure Nike sweatshirts are tossed out of the bookstore? Are we here to throw a ladder up against the ivory tower of the Corporation? Are we here to drink on Wednesday and talk about drinking on Thursday? When I see the Brown campus, I see a campus without a purpose.
In 1968, students around the entire world rose up against what they saw as the oppression and imperialism of the self-proclaimed "greatest generation." Engagement in a foreign war that had no redeeming qualities and, for American students, a government-promoted atmosphere of paranoia led to the creation of a cohesive group. Students watched other students dying on TV and felt for them, rather than disregarding them as the fringe that was foolish enough to act. They saw the fear gripping the nation and reversed it, believing that governments should fear their people, not vice versa.
We have no such unifying mentality. When we walk past the protesters on the Main Green, they are the fringe. While we support their right to protest, as long as it is in a safe and non-threatening manner, there is no pledge of solidarity behind a common purpose. We are a generation without motivation. The year 2008 showed a glimpse of the power of our generation, when we rejected the politics of fear and of the old guard and dared to hope for a brighter future. But where is that generation now? Fragmented and splintered until the greatest issue on campus is whether or not Diddy will be better than Snoop Dogg.
The lack of a cohesive and definable community on campus is one of the only criticisms that I have of my Brown experience. This is a wonderful University, filled with vibrant and brilliant students who have both the power and will to change the world around us. There are countless student agencies that provide charity and compassion to frequently ignored groups around the globe. We have the duty to build in Providence a new identity, one that will last beyond Wickenden Street and past graduation into our custodianship of this wide world.
There are serious problems facing our nation. How will we deal with the violent revolt in Libya? How will we treat the new self-determined regimes in other Middle Eastern nations — with suspicion or with open arms as we welcome them to the family of democracy? How will we respond to the looming economic and humanitarian crisis in Japan? Will we allow our governments to continue to infringe upon rights that took decades to secure?
This May, Brown will thrust into the uncertain world outside the Van Wickle Gates another 2,000 students that will have to come up with the answers to these questions. It remains to be seen whether or not the only unifying principle among them is the Latin on their diplomas.
Mike Johnson '11 is just fine with the great Zarquon's benevolent rule.