There's only one full week of classes left. Spring is in the air, Aslan is on the move, and people whom you haven't seen for months are finally emerging from winter hibernation. Yet, amid all this joy, term papers are due, and in less than a month, the class of 2014 will be capped and gowned and diploma'd. I'm delighted for them, and proud of all they've accomplished, but I am going to hate saying goodbye to so many dear friends.
And I don't have to wait till senior year to regret that my time at Columbia is blitzing past, leaving me bewildered and breathless. Anyone who's been at all acquainted with me knows that I'm prone to descents into nostalgia. I love to abandon homework and wander across this grand old campus, prompted by sights like the inscription over the fireplace in John Jay: “Hold fast to the spirit of youth. Let the years to come do what they may.” Or sometimes, in a more morbid mood, I'll consider the lettering in JJ's Place: “These men of the Class of 1915 died for their country.”
History lies thickly all around us at Columbia. Sometimes, it's worth stopping as you climb the western staircase to the third floor of Butler and stare General and President Eisenhower in the eye. It always makes me realize that, had the two great totalitarian regimes he fought triumphed, I wouldn't be here. The freedom to think and study is a great gift. And, when I remember that, the textbooks slung over my shoulder always feel a lot lighter.
Every senior I've talked to feels regret at leaving this beautiful and storied place, while everyone else just can't wait to survive the semester. Sometimes I worry that we spend four years at Columbia jumping through hoops—applying for the next internship, researching the next paper, scribbling the next problem set—while hardly ever pausing to drink in, with awe and gratitude, the wonder of the moments given to us. Each experience is only valuable as a building block for grander things, not worthy in and of itself.
The problem with that ambitious attitude is that it provokes an unanswerable dissatisfaction. If we see each chapter in our lives as only setting up the next, it will be impossible to delight in the intrinsic goodness of the things we're given. When will we be able to rest content? Even if we do get a tenure-track academic post, receive millions in Wall Street bonuses, or find a wonderful spouse and have beautiful children, there will always be imperfections that prompt us to strive for the next step up.
For many of us, this unhealthy instrumentalization begins in the college application process. We compare schools not by the nobility of their ideals but by their selectivity and endowment rankings. We prepare bucket lists of all the “experiences” we want to make sure to collect. We look forward to college as something to consume, not as a chance to orient our minds and hearts to love the Good, True, and Beautiful.
But then we meet the Core as newly arrived Columbians, and it resists instrumentalization. Of course you can SparkNote the great books of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization and extract what you need to pass the tests and write the papers. But when we come to the texts humbly, willing to give them due attention, we find that we are not so much reading them as they are reading us.
I read Pride and Prejudice two years ago in Lit Hum. At the time, I was forcefully impressed by the generous attitude of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. The sisters, though embroiled in love stories of their own, constantly think in terms of the well-being of their sisters and the family as a whole. I found it a refreshing dose of communitarian outlook in contrast to what I had come to see as Columbia's intensely individualistic dating culture.
But, to be quite honest, I also liked thinking that, because it let me feel superior to Columbians who didn't look to Jane Austen for advice on their romantic lives. This semester, I'm rereading Pride and Prejudice for an English class, and the book has read me anew. This time, I find it hard to congratulate myself for being like the generous elder Ms. Bennet. I keep glimpsing my own worst tendencies in the insufferable Mr. Collins or even in the pompous snob Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I've grown a bit, I hope, and the ability of Pride and Prejudice to probe me certainly has!
I think that kind of experience with the Core—of encountering something like Pride and Prejudice, valuable in and of itself, above and beyond ourselves—can help us cherish each of the wonderful experiences we're given on this campus. Whether this is our first or last year at Columbia, we have the precious privilege of studying and molding our minds and hearts in ways that will shape us for decades to come. We can begin to value for their own sakes the books we read, the people we meet, and the events we create. And not because they fill up a résumé.
Seniors, please make time to talk to the rest of us, say farewell, and maybe even have us over for tea, like Tanay Jaipuria. The rest of us need to seek you out, and maybe even sing “Sans Souci”: One last toast ere we part!
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
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