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Kalyanpur '13: The Unbearable Lightness of Brown?

"YOLO! YOLO!" has been echoing at every party you go to, and the hashtag is dominating the Twitterverse. "You Only Live Once" is a great excuse to get down and dirty, but it has also historically been the subject of plenty of philosophical debates. 

Milan Kundera in his elegant and eloquent work, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," argues that this belief system leaves us lacking purpose, as we are uncertain of what difference any of our actions can make in the long run. This is the crux of many a Brown students' existential crises. The author writes that this notion of insignificance makes our efforts seem "light" and leads to many being frustrated and overwhelmed. However, I want to argue that we should be reveling in the lightness the Brown system affords us and utilizing it to make educated decisions on the heaviness that will eventually define us.

One of the fundamental aspects of the New Curriculum is to encourage exploration. As the phrase goes, we should aim to enter Brown with an empty mind and leave with an open mind. But how can this be achieved? Ira Magaziner '69 and Elliot Maxwell '68, the authors of the New Curriculum, and many after them have recognized that crafting one's own education is the means to this end, but it can only be effective if a student has the prerogative to experiment. Our requirement-free system gives us this opportunity, but we must approach it with lightness. We need not fear the workload of a class, the sleepless nights we may incur or, most importantly, the way they may make us think. We need to embrace the naive curiosity that we were chosen for. If we only live once, we need to embrace the potential for intellectual indulgence.

Yet we often see students taking, in Kundera's terms, a "heavy" approach to education. This is the reason we have so many economics concentrators - we view this path as the way to achieving more in the future. It is the reason why easy-A classes like ENGN0090: "Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations" have such absurdly high enrollments. We spend too much time fixating on GPAs, despite their theoretical nonexistence. Heaviness acts as a tide pushing us toward choosing convenience and safety, but we cannot settle, and we must indulge in the vastness of the academic ocean here at Brown.

Heaviness need not be a hindrance so long as it is preceded by exploration. As Kundera writes, "The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become." The means to achieve this needs to come through experimentation in different fields. If you take classes from only a couple of departments in your time here, and you have found some form of passion, is that truly meaningful? I would argue no, because it means you've made a relatively uneducated final decision. Herein lies the wonder of liberal arts education that only lightness can allow us to take advantage of. This approach can act as a transition to an educated, more authentic form of heaviness that we will need in the future.

Nonetheless, lightness can become overwhelming, especially when you consider our plethora of course choices. But in Kunderan logic, what's to fear? We should all be willing to try something different, particularly when we remember this is only a four-year journey.

When this is translated to the social sphere, there can be mixed results. Of course, one should try to have new life experiences, but in college we easily get stuck in a collective rut. There is clearly a problem when the most overheard conversations on the Main Green are those regarding "how shitfaced" you were last night. Lightness does  not imply we must strive for decadence. And it is not just the partying - think about the state of the Green following a nice day. The repulsive amount of trash that covers our grass is another tell-tale sign of misplaced lightness.

In Kundera's novel, the characters who live lightly become trapped in a vacuum void of meaning. As we go through these four years and become more exposed, our eyes will hopefully be opened to how little we actually do know - this should be the purpose of liberal arts education. In some ways this can be a burden, but instead it should be utilized as a means to achieve a valuable end. We use heaviness in its conventional sense to approach our academics, but it is only through Kundera's notion of lightness that we can fully take advantage of our education. With fall registration looming, we need to keep this attitude in mind. If this makes no sense to you, please, just read the book.


Nikhil Kalyanpur '13 is a philosophy, politics and economics concentrator. He likes little talks and can be reached at



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