Breaking Out of The Bubble

By Alex Newhouse

It’s often said that we at Middlebury live in a bubble. Our little college sits deep in the Vermont woods, hours from the nearest major city and 45 minutes from Burlington, a town that’s hard-pressed to consider itself metropolitan in any way. We’re insulated from societal upheaval and cultural turmoil by the miles and miles of Green and Adirondack Mountains and national forests. And although we’re all undoubtedly fully immersed in the digital age, it’s still far too easy simply never to hear of events around the world. Because we have little to no exposure to the rapid, interdependent world around us, news, announcements and changes can go unnoticed.

In spite of the physical and metaphorical isolation of Middlebury, however, the students here are passionate. Activists, politicians and advocates make up the college. Our 2,500 students are determined, talented and dedicated individuals who want to make a difference. But in our little bubble, this is often a challenge.

And so, what we get is constant small-scale political and social revolution in a self-contained, self-sustained, insulated environment. Instead of protesting the tax breaks for massive oil corporations, Middlebury students push for the college’s divestment from fossil fuel companies. Instead of raising awareness for climate change as a large-scale phenomenon, we call for better efficiency in our heating and cooling. Instead of attempting to tackle homophobia on the societal level, we hold forums, write articles and stage protests against rappers for using homophobic slurs in their songs.

All of these social movements help make Middlebury a more progressive place, welcoming to people of every background. This kind of behavior of students is what made Middlebury a bastion of openness and tolerance. More than this, however, these acts allow students to make a meaningful change in their community. Protesting the investment of Middlebury funds in fossil fuels gives students an achievable goal, one that can significantly alter the way that Middlebury interacts with the outside world. It’s a monumental task to take on homophobia in the United States — but asking whether it is acceptable to let a musician sing homophobic epithets at Middlebury? That’s something manageable. That is something we can change.

At the same time, this isolated, inward-focused community we created brings about its own risks. For example, it’s entirely too easy to forget that the rest of the world even has problems. I didn’t know that a Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared over the Indian Ocean until almost a week after it happened. It took Russia invading and annexing Crimea for a large number of Middlebury students to learn something was wrong with Ukraine, even though the country had been going through extreme turmoil for several months. Most of us probably would say that when we live at home, we generally try to have one eye on current events. But at Middlebury, that habit can slip away.

So we end up with this community of people all concentrating solely on Middlebury. Everyone wants to help facilitate change, and so social movements frequently arise. The biggest danger that arises from this bubble is that people lose perspective. When a protest or a movement catches the College’s eye, it becomes almost a fad to be a part of it. And when activism becomes popular among a group of people contained within a small community clamoring to help, it occasionally can blow out of proportion.

This sounds counterintuitive at first glance — a social movement gaining popularity is bad? But it’s too often true: the zeal with which students respond to these movements can have unforeseen, and sometimes counterproductive, consequences. The exclusion of contrary voices is often the most obvious of these. One of the generally overlooked harms of zealous activism is the growth of the divide between a group and the rest of the community around it. We do not want activism to be driven by an “us vs. them” mentality. That isn’t conducive to equality and open-mindedness in a community.

We have to break down the bubble. We have to, as individuals and citizens of this world, take it upon ourselves to understand global events. As a result of Middlebury’s geographic and social isolation, it’s not easy to acquire knowledge and perspective of the eternally changing world, but it’s necessary. Each of us needs to put in the time to follow the news, even superficially, just so we have perspective. The more we know and the more we are aware of, the more tolerant, inclusive and effective our social movements will be. You can’t change a problem without understanding the complex background and issues that made that problem arise.