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The tragic half-life of undergraduate enthusiasm

By Phil Chevalier
On April 18, 2012

"Before I speak, I have something important to say." - Groucho Marx Like the words of a toddler, the words of the undergraduate are inconsequential and somewhat adorable. But while the toddler learns words for the first time,

the undergrad is faced with the task of re-evaluating the meaning of the words she has been halfmimicking since late infancy. Imagine a toddler who assures you that a monster is under his bed. We assure him that nothing is there, and we tell him to try to get some sleep. Now think of the undergraduate who puts a voice to what some might call naïve doomsday narratives, waxing prophetic on issues like the decline of language and the ultimate decay of the human

being-he might as well be shouting that one day the sun will

explode. "Get some sleep," he is told. Just like the toddler's fear of monsters, the undergraduate's "quest for Truth" is what some might call a "phase." And the reasons it gets viewed this way seem to be fairly self-evident; it isn't long

after graduating that these "big" problems seem to drop from her sight; he gets a job, his concern shifts to paying the bills and the rest is all very familiar. There is no longer any time to devote to these issues -and it was all really his imagination getting the best of her anyway. Reality has its own mysterious way of imposing itself, and the things that disappear when it sets in are called "imaginary" once they're gone. We say that the monster under the bed is imaginary, in

other words, by virtue of the fact that it takes the imagination of a toddler to see it. It's not as though we're wrong, there is no reason to take toddlers seriously. They're

toddlers. We shouldn't take undergrads seriously either, while they're undergrads at least. It seems a shame,

though, that once they graduate and earn the right to be taken seriously, so many undergrads give up their "naïve" interest in the bigger issues facing the world, laughing

about how silly it was to ever have been so concerned with them at some cocktail party years later. Not only does this reinforce the common perception that "big" problems are

reserved for the undergrad so that she might "get them out of her system" while she has the imagination to see them. It

misses the point when it comes to how important it is for undergraduates to have been allowed to exercise their imaginations in the first place. The whole idea behind "the

undergraduate degree" is that, while you're getting it, nothing you say, write or do is supposed to be taken too seriously. I'm not being cynical; it's the best part about college. College is an incubation period for a wide and ever changing set of beliefs and opinions. During the course

of it, students might find themselves on two sides of any given issue, depending on the semester. The very point of the undergraduate process is to step inside different

ways of thinking and see what fits with our shifting, amorphous sense of things. Not being taken too seriously is exactly what allows us the precious freedom to contradict ourselves over and again and have every statement feel like it's true no matter what; no one is keeping tabs on whether

the ideas in this semester's papers contradict the ideas from papers we composed in semesters past, nor does it matter that our beliefs may have changed - they're supposed to. When we're doing college right, no undergraduate walks across the graduation stage believing everything she did upon enrollment. Obviously, no one undergoing such a rapid evolution in their thinking should be subjected to the scrutiny of being "taken seriously." But does this mean that the

words of the undergrad are as unimportant as the toddler's?

Not at all. They are equally as formative, and even more, they

deal with things that are just a tad more real than monsters under the bed. They need not be given the same treatment.


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