Opinion | Columns

Real and imaginary

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.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

unfortunately, lanbo, you have just written a really sad, uninspiring, and bitter piece that wallows in cynicism and offers patronizing solutions to people who actually see a value in the process of conversation and building a stronger sense of community. i am bewildered by your profound disgust at others' efforts to forge connections and find fellowship in one another, especially at a place that even you seem to admit can be alienating. the isolation and loneliness that people at columbia experience are not imaginary problems. they are real problems that many of your peers face, and it can be devastating (not that you've taken ANY time at all to try an understand what that's like). but you know what? many of us who go through these things decide to face our feelings head on, and yes, sometimes we deal with these feelings by striving to build community and create meaningful dialogue with others around us. why? because we care about columbia and the people who go here. because we actually feel a sense of connection to fellow students and we seem to value that, unlike you. so my advice? quit telling your peers who are actually *gasp* DOING SOMETHING about what is a real challenge for many on this campus that their only options should be to transfer or just suck it up. don't take out your own bitterness our campus community on the people who genuinely care. it's kind of uncreative, thoughtless, and gross.

do better next time.

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Anonymous posted on

i don't think the author shows a "profound disgust at others' efforts to forge connections and find fellowship in one another" in this column, and while i agree that different people deal with community/relationships or lack thereof differently, i think he makes a fair point in saying that the type of community duke or dartmouth has will never exist here, and if you know that's what you're looking for, columbia is not right for you. that said, i'm sure there is a medium between the community here and the one at duke/dartmouth that we could work to achieve that might be right for some people.

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Anonymous posted on

LANBO PROMOTES RAPE CULTURE

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aggus posted on

Forget about community at Columbia. How about you guys learning how to write? All of you.

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Anonymous posted on

How is the idea of "campus dialogue" more made-up than Lanbo's distinction between "real" and "imaginary" problems?

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Anonymous posted on

The entire purpose of this op-ed seems to say, "I don't think there's any tangible administrative redress to these "community problems" so stop talking about it. Because I just don't like hearing about it." What life-changing advice.

In other words, why should we care that you don't care?

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Anonymous posted on

SPECTATOR IS FASCIST. IT DELTES MY OPINIONS.

LANBO PROMOTES RAPE CULTURE.

LONG LIVE OBNAL GNAHZ

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