I decided to leave Bowdoin sometime during winter break last year. By itself, that isn’t unusual—many Bowdoin students (more than half of the Class of 2015 according to the Orient) choose to study abroad their junior year. A semester abroad is a break from the rigors and routine of the liberal arts life, a chance to escape from Bowdoin’s smallness to the planet’s vastness. And if we tick off the “expanded horizons” box on our list of life experiences (or is that our resume?) in a country where we can legally purchase alcohol, it’s happy accident!
These benefits of going abroad were certainly on my mind last January, but I admit that my main reason for leaving Bowdoin was just that: leaving Bowdoin.
It’s no secret that I feel out of place on campus. The kid who spent his entire sophomore year haranguing against lax investment policies and getting into scuffles with the administration doesn’t exactly scream “typical Polar Bear.” Don’t rock the boat, dude.
But then I wonder—who is the typical Polar Bear? I asked a group of friends this question last spring. We found it hard to distinguish between the typical and the ideal. Our standard Bowdoin student was impossibly perfect: the leader of multiple clubs, burning with life-of-the-party charisma, talented at playing an instrument, working hard, but not too hard, to maintain his high grade point average (and he was inevitably male—maybe a vestige of the time when we sang “Rise, Sons of Bowdoin” and not “Raise Songs to Bowdoin”). This is the myth of the well-adjusted Bowdoin student.
Most of all, the typical Polar Bear is happy. The answer to the question that has plagued philosophers for centuries—what is the good life?—seems to be found on our tiny Maine campus, where shots of picturesque Polar Bears smiling line our student union.
The Bowdoin that the admissions office sells to high schoolers in pamphlets and smiling tour guides continues to be sold during our four years through beautiful Instagram pictures, the legend of the Bowdoin hello, and the news of the latest national fellowship winner.
This has, I think, led to the marginalization of discontent on campus. Maine is the way life should be. Anything else is how it shouldn’t be. We don’t want anything infringing upon our utopia, dispelling the myth we desperately want to be true. Maybe this is another form of “Millennial anxiety,” the subject of another wonderful Talk of the Quad: we set an impossibly high standard for ourselves if we expect our lives to be like the literally picture-perfect photos that line the hallways of Smith Union. We don’t often talk about unhappiness because admitting we are unhappy is tantamount to admitting we don’t belong.
We all recognize the falseness of parts of Bowdoin life. That’s why we call it the Bowdoin bubble—campus shields us from the real world. It’s pure simulacrum, a self-perpetuating and constructed reality. While we may buy into the bubble as a means of survival, of fitting in, we’re still distanced by the knowledge that a world exists past the statue of Joshua Chamberlain.
We tend to imbue our actions, then, with a bizarre sense of removal, as if everything we do has a hashtag in front of it. It’s not always cool to care, to be genuine, because Bowdoin isn’t the real world. Sincerity is vulnerability. Life at Bowdoin, then, might just be the ultimate expression of the ironic life, a mediated and self-defensive existence.
This collegiate (indeed, generational) irony combined with the marginalization of discontent adds up to a campus culture that does not take well to self-reflection. Consider the wholesale refutation of the admittedly problematic—but hardly meritless—NAS report last spring, or the joke that Bowdoin is a hotbed of social rest. There seems to be a circumscribed set of issues that Bowdoin students feel comfortable being passionate about: their studies, music and the outdoors, to name a few. In general, it’s hard to stick your neck out for a cause, let alone discuss the problems of our alcohol-fueled hookup culture, the importance of diversity on campus, or Bowdoin’s complicity in climate change.
And if those discussions are happening, we need to take them out of the proctor’s room or the Thorne dinner table and put them on a college-wide platform. One fabulous example is the upcoming Undiscussed, a series of small groups that give students a chance to voice concerns about Bowdoin with their peers. It’s a space for unqualified sincerity to combat our culture’s veneer of apathy and irony, which is not an easy thing to do in the age of the hipster.
So instead of fleeing Bowdoin for the entire year as was my original plan, I am returning to Maine this spring. Although I still feel lonely in the place that supposedly offers me a home in all lands and ages, I’ve made some incredible friends who are ready to talk about taboo subjects, from lengthy conversations about campus discontent with social house parties to fiery debates about Baudrillard over mashed potatoes.
There are more people here who wish things were different at Bowdoin than we realize. It’s just a matter of breaching the silence.