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This Bowdoin bubble

September 22, 2023

Amira Oguntoyinbo

This place is a bubble. Of course it is. Every fall, two-thousand students leave their homes—many in affluent suburban neighborhoods outside of major cities—to head to a small town on the coast of Maine. As you cross the state border from New Hampshire to Maine, the “Welcome to Vacationland” sign greets you, and if you flew into Portland, you can find the phrase “Vacationland” stamped on the license plate of almost every car you pass on the ride from the airport to campus. When you consider these two factors together, Bowdoin College and Brunswick can’t help but feel like a little bubble surrounded by ocean and woods.

I write this because there is a shocking contrast between the Bowdoin Bubble and how I grew up, which I am still trying to wrap my head around. I grew up in Portsmouth, NH, a very liberal town by all accounts, but in no way was it a bubble. I would leave my AP English class, where we were discussing Shakespeare or Flannery O’Connor, to find racial epithets written across toilet stalls. A peer once explained to me how Hillary Clinton personally broke into jail and killed Jeffery Epstien. I was told that everything from climate change to Black Lives Matter was simply another way the rich wanted to exploit the rest of the country. They would say “The nation had already suffered so much, so why was a revolt like January 6th such a bad thing?” There was also a healthy amount of denial of the 2020 election, and some QAnon conspiracy sprinkled in. I learned that despite my profound disagreement with many of the views I heard, there was an undeniable value in having a diversity of views, because it reminded all of us, as obvious as it may sound, that our opinions and thoughts are not the only ones.

At Bowdoin, we are isolated on a campus where many people think the same way, come from similar backgrounds and share the same values, dreams and aspirations. The overwhelming force of that homogeneity creates a tremendous pressure to conform. Ask a random Bowdoin student what part of the income bracket they think they are in, and they may answer “upper middle class” with career plans of medical or law school on the horizon. For those who don’t go to graduate school, there’s always consulting or finance, and of course, there’s time to go back for an MBA. Many of us hold similar ideas of what a successful career looks like: do something that helps society, but still make enough money to travel and “see the world.” And politically, most students consider themselves liberal. While the Bowdoin Democrats is an active group on campus, the Bowdoin Republicans no longer exist, reflecting how political discussion on campus is inherently one-sided.

I don’t mean to say these qualities are bad. I personally hope I can make a positive impact in the world, want to travel and consider myself to be on the broadly defined political left. But it seems as if being here means you must also share the same values and views. Campus continues to diversify economically, racially and in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation, but in terms of political diversity, it has fallen off a cliff.

When you mainly encounter people that have the same traits and beliefs, it feels as if we live in an all encompassing bubble. And with Brunswick’s geographic location, it can feel at times as if we can’t easily escape it either.

Because our political views are rarely in opposition, we have lost the ability to have substantive discourse, or engage with ideas, perspectives or beliefs that differ from our own. If someone challenges our preconceived notions, we either dismiss them or disengage from them.

When I sit in class, and we talk about the problems our state and nation face, I can’t help but feel that sometimes people simply don’t get it. I watch as people dismiss anyone who considers themself Republican as automatically a bad person. But it’s never that simple.

The danger of living in an intellectual bubble is that we only hear opinions that conform to our own. So when we enter the real world, we are not equipped to have respectful conversations without them developing into a shouting match. Our time at this place is temporary, and so too is this bubble. But the problem is if we leave Bowdoin without the skills of engaging in dialogue, we may seek to avoid it altogether. So once we’re out in the big scary world, we will create our own bubbles again. We will isolate ourselves from opposing political opinions and beliefs. On the nationwide scale, it results in what we see today—increasing polarization and a lack of civil discourse.

We have to engage with those who disagree with us, even if it hurts. We have to be open to hearing opinions we may consider utterly wrong. If we don’t, we will never know why the rest of the nation thinks the way it does. But we can’t do that inside this geographic and political bubble unless we stay connected to issues that matter outside of it. We have to consider more opinions in the bubble. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a start.

Sam Borne is a member of the Class of 2026.


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One comment:

  1. Gerrard Rudmin, '73 says:

    This is a good opinion piece. The new or explosively continued strife in Israel/Palestine will test strain of political disagreement for all Americans. We need to be friends with each other and learn peace, freedom and understanding in discourse.

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