In my experience, there are two types of problems at Columbia: real problems and imaginary problems. In light of Columbia College Student Council’s new initiative, “What To Fix,” I want to make a point of distinguishing between the two.
I have no desire to enter into a debate about the existential states of our problems and what properly constitutes existence. I will humbly leave those debates to other people. I merely wish to distinguish problems with real or physical solutions from those which can be remedied by changing our opinions and dispositions toward them.
Absolute Bagels’ closure at the hands of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was a real problem. If I had wanted a warm whole wheat everything bagel from my favorite bagel joint earlier in the week, I would have had no alternative. I would have gone to Nussbaum and Wu and settled for an inferior bagel.
Likewise, when I check the weather app on my iPhone and see a minus sign in front of the temperature, I can’t just walk out on the street in a T-shirt and boxers and not feel cold. My most practical solution is not to then begin some Gandhi-esque experiment where I test my mental will against the wind chill, but to make sure my coat is filled with down and to wrap a scarf around my neck.
Yet more often than not in the so-called “campus dialogue”—which, in my opinion, is a misleading and useless term thoughtlessly bandied about by student government types, Spectator columnists, and other self-appointed “campus leaders” in a self-aggrandizing attempt to seem more important than they are—real and imaginary problems tend to be confused. As an institution, we focus too much on trying to find physical solutions to imaginary problems and consequently forget about the real problems.
A good example of this—and it is merely one example of many—is the discussion of community. For as long as anybody involved in the “campus dialogue” can remember, Columbia has lacked community. As such, Columbia’s institutional bodies dedicate substantial resources trying to build it. Housing orders Resident Advisers to make door tags and send email after email about fostering “Special Interest Communities.” CCSC, through what seems like a series of offshore holdings and numbered accounts, funds T-shirts for Random Acts of Kindness Week using the infamous student life fee. Student Affairs even has a rather Orwellian-sounding arm called “Community Development,” under whose penumbra resides more Orwellian-sounding arms such as the “Office of Civic Action and Engagement” and the “Office of Student Development and Activities.”
I’m sure that much of the work done by the departments and offices I have just named is much appreciated by many students. Likewise, I am sure that much of the work is mostly ignored by many other students. In any case, despite their existence, “campus dialogue” people still complain about not having enough community at Columbia.
If community were such a dire problem at Columbia, students would have two solutions. The first is a real solution: Transfer to Dartmouth or Duke or somewhere where they have a “vibrant and thriving community.” The second is to knock this ridiculous idea of community off its pedestal and accept the practical reality that Columbia, due to its particular set of circumstances—as determined by its location, makeup of graduate and undergraduate schools, physical space, and whatnot—will never have the community that is constantly being called for.
Not having a community isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It just happens to be the case. When it becomes a problem, it is only because people perceive it as such. At that point, it is a problem that no administrative body can fix with a physical solution. Such problems are individual in nature and can only be solved by changing how we perceive them.
Instead of spending so much energy tending to the complaints raised in the “campus dialogue,” the administrative bodies of the University should look for ways to deal with Columbia’s many real problems. Take the issue of space, for example. The School of Engineering and Applied Science, still looking for a permanent dean, persistently lacks laboratory space. Similarly, student groups seem to be constantly short on practice space, meeting space, or performance space. When exams roll around, all of us will inevitably sacrifice firstborns for Butler study space.
Having identified space as a major issue long ago, President Bollinger used eminent domain to get some for us in Manhattanville. While the campus expansion created headaches of its own, it proves my point: Institutions are better at dealing with real problems, and individuals are better at dealing with imaginary ones.
Ultimately, I don’t particularly care about either the issue of community or the issue of space—they simply illustrate the need to distinguish the real from the imaginary. Conflating the two does nothing to help anyone. We will all save ourselves a lot of grief if we stop.
Lanbo Zhang is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics and history. He is a former Spectator editorial page editor. Second Impressions runs alternate Thursdays.
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