Opinion | Columns

Absurdity in culture

Spending the past week packing for my study abroad program in the Netherlands and watching my friends endure the stress of the return to school really felt great. Schadenfreude, I guess. And while everyone has been busy being busy, I have had the luxury of pondering why some choose to go abroad and some choose to stay.

The percent of Columbia students who study abroad is unnecessarily low. Studying abroad should be the default track, and it should be worked into the Core Curriculum if it claims to provide a diverse experience for undergraduates. I would strongly argue that there is no substitute for lived experience.

Most people who choose not to study abroad have a stock excuse that’s some permutation of “it won’t fit into my life.” Some common examples are “I have too many Core classes left” or “I’m quadruple majoring” or “I have a Barclay’s interview in March that I really can’t miss.”

These reasons are usually genuine. People want to study abroad but feel unable to. For some students it seems impossible to vanish for a semester. There are two major ironies about this situation: the first is that the Core, which is supposed to broaden our horizons, actually hinders students from the broadening experience of living in another country. This is an easy fix—eliminate the various unnecessary prerequisites for study abroad and offer it as an alternative to Global Core.

The second is more difficult. All of these trivial things (clubs, majors, internships, interviews) are facets of our very specific culture. If we took the time to study other cultures, we could free ourselves from Columbia’s oppressive collective anxiety. But we are so wrapped up in the communal delusion that these commitments are all-important that we don’t even have time to look at other cultures. Thus the cycle is perpetuated. So it turns out that without exposure to other cultures, people drown in their own. Lived experience is the only way out of this loop.

In other words, I don’t want to become cultured, I want to become cultureless. And it just so happens that the way to become so is by immersing yourself in other cultures until you reach the point where your own seems as absurd as the rest. The content of the culture you immerse yourself in is trivial—you can poke around the world’s wells of wisdom and take a few ideas that you like. But the ultimate benefit is to gain a basis for comparison and, hopefully, perspective. I don’t have a particular vendetta against the highly-productive, Ivy League-educated, American way of life—I like it a lot, but there are still some things we could learn from the more relaxed corners of the world, just like they can learn from us.

When I see my friends obsessing about internships or grades, I find it funny that they can be so invested in a culture without recognizing it as such. They are just as immoderate as the people in Papua New Guinea who munch on the brains of their dead pals. Binging on career fairs and self-medicating with Everclear and Five-Hour Energy is no more normal than the customs and lifestyles around the world that we consider bizarre.

The beauty of studying culture is that it has a geometric quality to it. We start off only at a point, just knowing one culture. Learning about how other people live doesn’t only give us another point, but it also creates a line of perspective. And a third creates a plane, and so on, so that our understanding increases exponentially when we learn about culture linearly. It’s so hard to break the shell of that first culture, though. Plato had it right when he said we want to kill whoever informs us of our own delusion: Nobody wants to find out that they have been living in a world of absurdity, but each culture is just another absurd way to live.

Culture routinely convinces its subjects to do things that are objectively terrible, like fight in a war or work eighty-hour weeks as an investment banker or go to law school. What a perfectly evolved way for a society to get what it wants: cultural stigmas and merits convince individuals to suffer for everyone’s sake merely with the promise of status and honor and other things that cost nothing to manufacture but cost your precious time to earn. Your time is worth more to yourself than to anyone else, and without cultural perspective, it is easy to simply become part of someone else’s plan, in which you are sure to be undervalued.

I don’t know what I’ll learn in the Netherlands, but that’s precisely the point. If I knew what I would learn, I wouldn’t have to learn it. I have to take a leap of faith and recognize that there are some things that can only be known through experience. I am trying to heed what the Core has to say: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The shackles are self-imposed, and the key to unlock them lies in the knowledge that there are things worth knowing I cannot yet predict; I can only push myself in the direction of stumbling upon them.

Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies and linguistics. He is studying in Leiden, the Netherlands.Thinking Twice runs alternate Wednesdays.

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

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Anonymous posted on

Ouch. Really wishing I made a different choice after reading this (which is super well written, btw)

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Anonymous posted on

you kidding?

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Anonymous posted on

Really liked the article, Jake. I didn't study abroad and the reasons were similar to the ones you mentioned. Still, it's a cost benefit, and there is a high cost to being abroad. It would be great to hear your perspective after, and see if you feel the same way after experiencing the downsides to being abroad - being largely disconnected from CU, your friends, and job opportunities. Anyways, food for thought!

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Anonymous posted on

Yikes. He hasn't even left yet and he is already spouting that familiar study abroad babble. "Oh, I *discovered* myself in Paris." "You just can't appreciate the absurdity of consumer culture until you integrate into a small Guatemalan town." "I'm so sexually liberated." ---everyone who studied abroad ever.

Can everyone afford to study abroad? Surely not.

Does everyone want to be culture-less? Certainly not.

Is the strictly academic experience abroad anywhere near that of Columbia? Typically not.

Is it possible to travel, indeed study, abroad when you're not in undergrad? Of course.

There is a lot of value in studying abroad, but I think we, and the author in particular, needs to separate the "studying" part from the "abroad" part. It doesn't make a ton of sense, from a financial and academic standpoint, to study abroad during the semester when you are missing interviews, classes, social events, and IIRC still must pay Columbia tuition. Going abroad over the summer solves most of these issues, and so would a gap year on either end of undergrad. I "studied" abroad over a summer, and it was an incredible experience, but I would never make the mistake of during so during the semester (except for a few, highly valuable programs).

I get that you have to make a stunted argument for these kinds of columns, but this doesn't really appreciate any alternative but the author's own culturally agnostic, purposefully reductive perspective, and for that reason reads as a parody of THAT girl/guy who just got back from Paris and won't shut up about it.

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Anonymous posted on

Pretty trite article. Write something interesting next time man. Why'd this guy get a column anyway? Are there standards anymore for this paper? Embarrassing.

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Anonymous posted on

Contrary to popular belief, some people actually enjoy their time here. I didn't study abroad, because I couldn't imagine missing out on a semester of amazing classes in my favorite city in the world.

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Anonymous posted on

cool orientalism bro

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Anonymous posted on

HEY STUDY ABROAD IS ALSO REALLY EXPENSIVE DUDE

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Anonymous posted on

"I don’t have a particular vendetta against the.. Ivy League-educated, American way of life—I like it a lot" I'm sure you do - you sound extremely pretentious and privileged. Get some perspective. OH, wait, you are.

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