I head to the gym on a chilly weekday evening. Inside, everything is where it should be. Most of the machines are full. People don’t make eye contact, look away if you catch their glance and reach for their phones between sets. We all have AirPods in and we know what we’re there for. We slide weights off racks, place them back onto other racks and rearrange them into better orders to get the optimal workout.
I stare at the beige ceiling and do 12 reps, repeating this three times before sliding the weights back off. When I rest, I try to look down at the ground, but notice that people’s clothes have names in the corner. So do mine. More sliding of weights, but this time onto a different machine. Outside, a light snow falls, covering the sleek SUVs that fill the parking lot. They have leather seats, remote start features and a pair of skis in the trunk.
A friend of mine almost took this semester off, but she decided to stay and make the best of it. She doesn’t share this with the droves of people that took leaves this semester, last semester or really for any combination of Bates time units since the pandemic began. Although I can’t speak for all of them, I know several of their stories: students exhausted with the demands of our academic machinery, the ostentatious feeling of our wealthy bubble and the search for meaning in a four-year degree, all made far more challenging by the strain of the pandemic.
When this friend was in the midst of planning her then-certain semester off, she chose seven pairs of pants and a little over seven tops that she considered her best and piled the rest in cardboard moving boxes for Goodwill. It’s this kind of anti-materialist, pro-follow-what-matters feeling that I have often heard about: A wanting to not be a part of these rooms full of people with branded clothes, BMW keys in their pockets, prepared food to eat and words to sift through their expensive reasoning machines, but nothing to really get done other than lacrosse, theater or some other form of underwater basket weaving.
Instead, they look for something that feels more in touch with reality. My friend, who had found more meaning on her gap-year than from Bates’ academic experience, wanted to find a place like the farm where she stayed rent-free in exchange for her work, something that would provide concrete sustenance to some people.
A different friend told me that their non-Batesie sibling withdrew their admission from an ivy-league school in exchange for a membership in an “intentional living” community, citing that they found much more meaning in meeting the tangible needs of a tight-knit group. I heard of someone who took a year off to go work at a Colorado brewery, another who went to live in a backcountry ski hut. Others took mental health breaks, citing the various stressors of Bates for taking their leave but often wanting the comfort of home and family instead.
Much more than other colleges, Bates as a whole feels proud that it is grounded, more in touch with reality and less a part of the capitalist machine than more elite colleges with grindier students and bigger endowments. But I think what irritates so many people is that this feels like a thin veneer under which lies the same problems that people had with these other colleges.
People don’t flex Gucci or whatever, but they don their Patagonia puffers and crunchy apparel for a reason. People seem bohemian enough until you realize that you needed straight A’s to make the dean’s list, which made up 25% of the student body last semester. People volunteer instead of intern, but they still do their fair share of interning, working at environmental groups and a milieu of nonprofits with names you know. They probably aren’t paid, but not to worry, it’s for the resume, not the paycheck. Not only that, but they can choose to take time off from school to follow what they think will make them happy.
To be fair, I think the moral bar is set pretty low for college students at large, and Bates clears that bar with flying colors. But I think we might have confused our glaze of intentionality with the careful examination that the fullest extent of that intention requires.
In other words: why do we choose Patagonia instead of some used, non-name-brand clothes? Why go for the dean’s list and transform ourselves into the information processing machines and commodities that Bates makes us? Are we doing it to serve our wider communities, to do the most good we can, to be good effective altruists? Or are we doing it because of inertia, because our parents have written the check, both for our college and our Subaru, and they expect us to go? And if we choose to opt out — to pursue happiness in whatever form — what are we giving up, and for who? And should we be doing what makes us happy?
I ask as someone guilty of most of these questions, but I don’t think I have a clear answer for any of them. I think that digging for a solution, though, will help Bates get closer to what it wants to be.