Reorient Yourself

By Alex Newhouse

 Over the last few weeks, an internet blog has been making the rounds throughout Middlebury students. At this point, you’ve probably heard of it. Called the Middlebury College Disorientation Guide, the blog contains several posts outlining some of the problems with Middlebury’s approach to environmentalism and social justice. It’s an intriguing collection of articles that makes you think about what it means to be a Midd student, how we interact with our school, and how our school interacts with the world.

Certainly, the Disorientation Guide hits upon some hot-button issues that are popular in today’s culture. It raises some difficult questions about the aims of Middlebury’s investment. It calls out the college for being hypocritical with regards to carbon neutrality. It even attacks some of the most espoused beliefs on campus—that Middlebury is somehow unique, that going here is an unreproducible experience, and that students here have exceptional intellects and talent.

Although I agree with what much of the Disorientation Guide states, it makes some impassioned arguments that stray from the supported to the impulsive. It uses the power of fad social movements to make its points, relying on scathing attacks on elements of Middlebury culture that probably don’t deserve all the hate that the guide is leveraging on them.

For example, the guide wants us to ask ourselves, is Middlebury actually progressive? Do we uphold standards of social justice? The authors take the declarative stance that no, in fact, social injustices are reflected within the student body. But the question that this raises is if societal problems become a college’s problems. Is a college culpable if you can see stereotypes in its student body?

The disorientation guide is right in stating that the number of rich and white people at this school is disproportionate and, sometimes, shocking. But the guide also reasons that this makes Middlebury not actually progressive or diverse at all, insinuating that the relative lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on campus is a choice the college is consciously making.

However, blaming Middlebury for this lack of diversity is misunderstanding the issues behind social inequality. What the authors of the disorientation guide seem to forget is that the disproportionate representation of the wealthy at Middlebury is a symptom of this social inequality, and most likely not a result of some insidious scheme to make money. It’s not necessarily Middlebury’s fault that the student body is as disproportionately represented as it is. We should not make the college responsible for systemic social problems.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to address them. I certainly think that the College can help out in local communities, strengthening schools and addressing the problems at their sources. After all, the best way to fix any injustice is not to slap a quick fix on it after the damage has already been done; rather, helping out at its root cause can progress toward eliminating the problem altogether.

But even though Middlebury has issues with diversity, all students share the common belief that Middlebury is special. Or at least, that’s what I thought people believed. The guide’s authors argue that, actually, the uniqueness of Middlebury is fake, and that our school is really founded on an elitist, archaic understanding of knowledge and wisdom. While I agree that much of the American education system needs to be fixed, and that there’s too great a focus on test-taking, the guide goes so far as to seemingly assert that intelligence is a social construct. “Meritocracy is not real,” it says definitively. Sure, there are different forms of intelligence, and there are many hundreds of millions of brilliant people who didn’t go to schools like Middlebury, but that doesn’t mean that the form of intelligence Middlebury emphasizes isn’t any less real.

We were accepted to Middlebury because we were talented in academics. Many of us were good at memorizing tables, formulas, and dates, but that’s not the only element of education. Middlebury focuses on critical thinking, encouraging us to challenge our professors, our books, and the thoughts of others. Even if it’s not unique, this alone makes Middlebury special. We are all talented in this form of intelligence, and our college serves to emphasize it and make us better learners, thinkers, and citizens.

The fact that we are all intelligent in this way and share in the same intellectual community doesn’t make us better than anyone else. The guide’s authors were right in that intelligence comes in countless shapes, and that we can learn from every person on Earth. However, that fact doesn’t preclude us from being exceptional. We are intelligent, talented, and dedicated. But the authors equate being exceptional with exceptionalism, intelligence with elitism. And yet, Middlebury students are often brilliant at what they choose to do, while at the same time recognizing the inherent equality in all humans. Being good at something doesn’t necessitate lording it over people.

The authors also suggest that, along with no one being exceptional, Middlebury itself isn’t unique. In other words, although we think non-Midd students won’t “get it,” in fact our community doesn’t provide us with anything special. I respond to this by asking them, what makes Middlebury not unique? It’s a special experience that only exists in one place, with one set of students and professors, with one set of values. Saying it’s not unique is far more disingenuous than saying it is. No one outside of Midd will understand that special and life-changing philosophy class you might have taken. That was a singular, incredible experience that only a very few people got to participate in. This isn’t a bad thing. Each college has its own unique brand of education and unique set of experiences it offers. If you click with your school, if you passionately love being a student there, you’ll have four years that no one else will ever experience. It’s yours and only yours. And that’s the beauty of it.

In my last column, I discussed how we have to be careful of slipping too far into the “Middlebury Bubble.” I believe that the Disorientation Guide is a prime example of the effect of the bubble on the way people perceive social problems. Popularity can cause rational activism to become irrational and impulsive. Disenchantment can become more of a person’s identity than a logical feeling about a system. Middlebury has its fair share of problems, but conspiracy theories will do nothing to solve them. Demeaning the incredible wealth of opportunities and the social activism that the college pursues will improve nothing. Instead, addressing problems in the most positive ways possible will help people and communities without harming the ability of the college to operate.