For the majority of students at Vanderbilt, college is a way of getting somewhere else. We are here because Deloitte and JP Morgan don’t recruit at our state schools. We are here because top-ranked law schools and med schools prefer graduates from elite institutions. We are here because one day we looked at the US News and World Report ranking and saw Vandy was “top xxxxteen”—after all, our marketing department seems deeply committed to getting this message across.
We come here with the idea that we want to to be the best. The problem with this is that it creates a world of winners and losers. We are only best if there are people beneath us. Furthermore, this relation is almost always defined in economic terms—i.e. numbers. We want a top income, a top ranking and a top job.
In establishing our hegemony, we deny access to our institution. In an effort to reduce our acceptance rate, we give preference to early decision candidates, who, unlike many others, have the capacity to guarantee the income to pay for school even before applying for financial aid. In our obsession with numbers, we fixate on SAT and ACT scores, which we know are highly related to income, unlike other indices of academic achievement. The result? We have the fourth highest share of students from the top 1% of income-earners in the nation, and only 30% of our students come from a non-affluent background (bottom 80% of household income). But it’s all fine because, hey, we’re top 14!
Moreover, in treating college as pre-professional training, we do not treat education as an end in itself. Seldom do we go to our professors in office hours to ask questions which do not serve to improve our grades—GPA is another number with which we are obsessed—, and we do not take classes unless they serve a particular purpose in our career. Even how we “rate our professors” has a lot to do with whether or not they give us that ever-sought-after 4.0.
College used to be about stepping outside the world and questioning it. We do not do that anymore. In fact, we are more than willing to comply with the world in which we live because it’s rigged in our favor. We don’t question it because we have been focused on achieving the next goal for too long—our overachieving crusade started in high school or earlier.
This causes us to see our leisure time as binary. Whatever existence we have outside our classes is reduced to either drunken escapades or “internships and extracurriculars.” In talking about the latter, we use buzzwords that do not escape our obsession with professionalism. We talk of leadership, creativity and service, which are vague placeholders for even more things we do in relation to the market and our productivity.
we ought to challenge why we want what we want, and the people we want to become.
So what should college be about? I surely do not expect everyone to drop their ambitions and become underachievers. However, we should reserve a space in which we study for the sake of what we’re studying, and in which we examine our own lives and the world we live in. We should also give up our obsession with numbers. They are reductive and they do not represent us as individuals—just go look at that survey that says we are the happiest students in the nation.
Our campus is a microcosm of a much greater sociopolitical order that considers everything in relation to the market. We have to combat it on our own turf. We ought to press our administration to expand opportunities to those who are not affluent. We ought to talk about issues outside the frame of the market. We ought to learn about our particular place in space and time. Most importantly, we ought to challenge why we want what we want, and the people we want to become.
Jorge Salles Diaz is a senior in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.