To some degree, we are all afraid of change. Familiarity comforts us, and we like to see our communities as static. Columbia is no exception. We often refer to Columbia as having a “Culture”: an unchanging set of principles, rules, and apparent truths that seem to define the balance and make-up of our campus. In reality, the Columbia Culture is highly dynamic—we just have to break down the stigma of constancy.
The Columbia Culture is comprised of long-standing traditions and institutions, from the Core Curriculum—with a set of books that has remained largely unchanged since first half of the 1900s—to John Jay, which I suspect hasn’t seen a serious renovation since Allen Ginsberg was evicted. Still, the most powerful components of the Columbia Culture are our eternal goals of grandeur. Undergraduates, graduate students, and professors alike are not so gently pushed toward excellence, encouraged only to go for the most competitive internships and fellowships, try to attain a GPA the highest over 4.0, to achieve presidential status in the most clubs and organizations, and, incidentally, to see who can care the least about mental and physical well-being.
We view the Columbia Culture as static and unchanging, but in reality, the opposite is true. The Culture is constantly changing, and this semester has been exceptionally dynamic. The beginning of the semester saw the departure of Dean Moody-Adams, caused largely by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ deterioration of respect for the Core Curriculum and Columbia College as an undergraduate institution. We began to appreciate the unique power of the Core and its impact on shaping Columbia to be one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the world.
The middle of the semester saw Columbia return to its roots of activism—after lying largely dormant and pathetically apathetic in the decades following ’68, the Columbia Culture underwent a resurgence in protest as Columbia students rallied behind causes such as Troy Davis, the Sotheby’s workers, and Occupy Wall Street. Students began to lose their blinds of apathy, skipping class and ignoring papers to attend rallies and make a stand for their principles at the risk of arrest.
At the end of the semester, we lost Tina Bu, which brought with it a call for a complete re-examination of the Columbia Culture. We began to question the cost of perfection and for the first time viewed the Columbia community in its true form: a group of vulnerable individuals who often hide behind perfection to avoid their real problems.
The fact that recent articles in The Eye about Tina’s death were shared by more than 1500 people on Facebook and liked by countless more goes to show that people are ready for progress. The Columbia Culture is far from stationary, but instead has the capacity for great change.
These necessary changes are not out of our hands. An oft-repeated—and at this point very trite—quote from Gandhi states that you should “be the change you want to see in the world.” Although we may inevitably view this cliché with cynicism, there is an inherent, beautiful truth to it. The undesirable parts of the Columbia Culture are not set in stone. We can be the change we wish to see, the change that can save individuals. Let’s continue to fight for our principles and eradicate apathy. Let’s protect the parts of Columbia that need protecting, from the Core to Columbia College’s importance within the University itself. Above all else, let’s change Columbia’s obsession with perfection.
Of course, we have an obsession with perfection for a reason. We are one of the top-ranked universities in the world, comprised of one of the most talented student bodies. Our classmates and peers are used to excellence, and we will eventually be the leaders of the world. Sometimes, though, we have to pause and realize that life is about more than GPAs over 4.0, board positions, and starting salaries of $100,000. Our priorities should never place achievement over mental well-being.
As the first books in Contemporary Civilization will tell you, life is about achieving happiness, in whatever individual form that may be. Few of us, by virtue of the fact that we ended up at Columbia, are conformists. We are visionaries and innovators, trendsetters and idealists. Let’s stop conforming to the Columbia Culture and continue to change it for the better. We can be the change we wish to see.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore double majoring in political science and Latin American studies. He is an associate editorial page editor.