It’s week five of term and I can’t name a single movie in theaters. I check the date not once, but multiple times a day. I was in Wilson Café last Friday and I heard a student ask, “So wait, what happens if they impeach him?”
Her friend shrugged and sipped his iced coffee. A moment passed, and then:
“Hang on — they’re actually trying to impeach him?”
New students, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that this place has a unique ability to block out the rest of the world. The space between BiHall and the Athletic Center is like our own Odyssean land of the Lotus-eaters, with footpaths unfurling in every direction like tributaries of the river Lethe. Really, it’s as though the minute we arrive in September we drudge up all knowledge of the outside world and put it in a Harry Potter-style Pensieve … which our parents promptly pack up and drive back to Boston in the family Escalade. Sure, there are exceptions, the kinds of people who turn heads in seminars by name-dropping every new White House hire. I suspect that for a lot of us, though, our best news-reading practices fall by the wayside during term-time.
To be clear, I sympathize. In many ways, simply being at Middlebury complicates any attempt to stay in the news loop. This campus isn’t exactly conducive to podcast listening (it’s tiny, and in the short walk from Forest to Davis you’ll run into at least four people who force you to pull out your AirPods and say hello). Print media is hard to come by; even when there were still free copies of The New York Times outside dining halls, these were picked to pieces by avid crossword do-ers (now, cruciverbalists have to get the app). And while articles appear from time to time in our News Feeds, we all know the only point of Facebook at college is to figure out whether the Alex you hooked up with in Munford last night is the same one in your friend’s GSFS lecture.
That said, the problem with these excuses became a lot clearer to me a few weeks ago. As a Toronto native, I was surprised to overhear the Canadian Prime Minister’s name while waiting in line for a Proctor panini press. A quick phone-check confirmed the worst: photos of the Liberal leader in brownface and blackface had surfaced and, in doing so, unleashed an understandable media storm.
Trudeau’s past abuses of privilege aside, I was shocked. The photos were released on Wednesday. At this point, it was Saturday. How had I missed that? Not to mention — what did it say about my literal and figurative living situation that I was able to miss that?
That afternoon, I FaceTimed my dad. When we talked about Trudeau, I struggled to keep up my side of the conversation. Proper noun-phrases like “Liberal Party” and “University—Rosedale Electoral District” (for which and in which I’d worked all summer) felt foreign on my tongue.
“Will it change the way you vote?” he asked. I wasn’t sure, so we switched to talking about things on the other side of the Pacific. My dad asked if I’d kept up with the protests in Hong Kong. I blushed. I hadn’t.
“What are they teaching you up there, Elle-Belle?” he asked.
Not everyone finds ignorance embarrassing. I’ve had conversations where the phrase “oh, I don’t read the news” is tossed around with relished irreverence, where obliviousness is worn as a blank badge of honor. Here, a lot of students seem to “Add/Drop” news-reading like it’s a fifth, eminently dispensable elective. If I were an advisor asked to sign off on that particular course switch, I’d remind my advisee that willful ignorance is a pretty profound privilege. At Middlebury, most of us can leave the outside world alone because we’re safe in the knowledge that, if we want, it’ll leave us alone too. But that isn’t true for everyone on campus, and it certainly isn’t true for the rest of the country.
Above all else, I’d remind my advisee that there’s a difference between getting an “education” and becoming world-aware. Many professors do their best to bridge that gap. Still, it’s one thing to study impeachment procedures in an Axinn lecture hall, and another entirely to appreciate that those procedures are happening right now, re-molding the socio-political landscape well beyond the next row of Green Mountains. I’d suggest that this second kind of awareness holds more value than any “A.”
And so it’s up to us to keep the outside world close, to search out headlines and perspectives and bring them into imaginative being on College Street. I realize it takes enormous effort. But it’s also enormously important — and, I’d argue, part of our duty as students at one of the best schools in the country. When I graduate in May, I’d like to re-enter a world I not only recognize, but might one day make an informed, meaningful contribution to.