December was a very bad month for me.
This is not, I gather, an uncommon sentiment. Yale seems to operate at breakneck speed toward the end of the semester; my neck itself didn’t break, but it seemed, at the time, that my spirit did. I pushed myself to a state of exhaustion that hurt me physically, mentally and emotionally.
Everything turned out fine; a few days of rest at home was enough to cure whatever ailed me. But I still can’t shake a feeling that I was more alone than I needed to be. I wish someone had told me to take better care of myself.
It would be absurdly unfair to hold each student responsible for the well-being of his friends. On the other hand, this campus seems to be plagued with an opposite problem: a pervasive aversion to any unsolicited advice. Why is it so rare to hear people say what their friends need to hear rather than what they want?
The short answer is that to do so would be paternalistic, in both the literal and philosophical sense. And either kind of paternalism gets an exceedingly bad rap in college.
For one thing, the point of living on our own is that, free from parents’ watchful eyes, we can handle ourselves. However, though essentially adult in this responsibility, we imagine college less as a launching pad into adulthood and more as a buffer or “safe zone” from the real world — one in which we can and ought to do whatever we please. So many college graduates offer some variation on this monologue: “College was the best time of my life. I did so many crazy things. Don’t waste it.” We seem to have adopted this as an obligation, a shield against any accusation of irresponsible behavior. Anyone who has heard the expression, “It’s not called alcoholism until after you graduate,” will understand what I mean.
This can far too easily become an assumption that telling someone to act more responsibly is infringing on his right to enjoy the college experience by acting like a parent in setting down rules. Furthermore, it implies a moral superiority to one’s peers — a sentiment that students who pride themselves on “not judging” take pains to avoid expressing.
This aversion to such presumption is justified — or perhaps merely rationalized — by a tendency on campus toward relativism. If we truly respect the diversity of our peers’ experiences, the argument goes, we cannot determine what is best for them as well as they can because we cannot understand them as well as they understand themselves.
We have seen the pitfalls of paternalism in the invasion of Iraq — the formative event of an era that, if recent history is any indication, will determine our generational character. It is possible to blame the war’s failures on U.S. imperialistic hubris; not only did the administration take aggressive action to impose abstract values on another people, but it did so because it paternalistically assumed that it understood that people.
So can students be blamed for an aversion to acting like our parents or President Bush? Not exactly. But we may understand each other better than we think we do. Despite the perception that students live independent lives, college is an overwhelmingly communal experience. Living in such close proximity both molds students’ experiences with a certain similarity and gives us some insight into what others are going through.
In fact, it’s not inconceivable that others could gain insight about us that we ourselves have not yet realized. The other thing all those graduates say about college is that it is a time to “find yourself,” the logical extension being that we have yet to do so upon matriculation. If our own self-knowledge is imperfect, we must be open to the knowledge our peers can offer.
More importantly, we must be willing to give advice when it needs to be given. Shopping period is usually a time for this, to everyone’s benefit. Perhaps we can remember to continue this after the scheduling deadline has passed. Telling people what they need to hear isn’t an act of moral superiority — it is one of communal trust.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.