The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College since 1873

Author: Scott Olehnik

Welcome to Bates College

At about this time every year, people are starting to become fixated on college commencement speeches. There’s a particular fascination for what the famous, successful, or powerful have to say to all of these young people on the cusp of being thrown out into the big, bad world.

I, however, see these speeches as a dramatic waste of opportunity. These are students who are already fairly well formed, having had a myriad of experiences in four years in the American higher education system. There is a whole group of people going unguided, their limitless potential and promise going unrecognized. That group of people is comprised of those just beginning their college experience either about to start, or having just finished their freshman year.

In this vein, I would like to offer my own speech of sorts, one designed provide to my younger brethren with a signpost for what I believe to be a full and happy college experience. It would look a little something like this:

Good morning everyone, and welcome to your orientation. No, I’m not talking about your freshman orientation, but rather what is widely regarded as your orientation to the world at large. The college experience, far from being a simple academic affair, is going to test you in more ways that you thought possible. Indeed, it is going to make you the person that you never knew you could be.

This isn’t to say that we’re going to do all of the work. No, the college experience is only going to help those who know how to help themselves. It may be that you can’t do that yet, and that is part of the learning process. There is so much to do in this world, and it would be a mortal sin to let it all pass you by.

Before I spend too much time waxing philosophical and sentimental about the college experience, let me get right down to it.

Do something that you find yourself invested in and that interests you. There’s this perception that not all majors are created equal, however, the truth of the matter is that a major is only what you make it. It matters what you want to get out of it, and thus what you are able to apply it to. If you can put your heart into it, it’s infinitely better than slogging through a math major simply because you think it might be more “useful”.

Similarly, don’t fret about the grades, good or bad. Life is about more than just numbers, and that final GPA is not an assessment of value. Knowledge is not something that can be numerically quantified, and that 52% you might get on an organic chemistry exam doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t understand organic chemistry. Take the tests, but understand that these tests are checkpoints, and not finish lines.

Try everything that you can. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one single major or field of study. A holistic understanding of the world doesn’t just come from a study of physics, but from an incorporation of many different fields of study. Take classes in English if they interest you, even if you’re a biochemistry major. Spend time studying a language. Learn all that you can. Be curious, and do something that makes you a little nervous. Don’t worry what people say about you.

Go abroad, and immerse yourself in another culture, even if it’s just “across the pond”. So many people fall into the fallacious notion that they’ll be able to travel once they finish college, but the simple truth is that you won’t be able to replicate the semester that many spend abroad. It’s more than just traveling, it’s starting fresh in a completely different country. It’s adapting when life demands adaptation. It’s throwing yourself on the mercy of the world, and showing it that you won’t be crushed under the pressure.

Don’t be afraid if you have no inkling of what you want to do with your life. Most people come into the college experience knowing exactly what they want to do when they graduate, and for some of them, they’re right. The majority, though end up figuring out that being a lawyer or a doctor isn’t really what they want to do. Maybe they figure out that they want to work in animal conservation, or write, or work in government. Maybe they figure out that a biology major or an English major isn’t representative of what they want from their life. It happens. Just roll with it.

Have fun. It needs no explication, but I’ll provide one anyway. Do that naked lap, go bridge jumping, learn to ski, write a controversial column for The Student, lead an AESOP, and participate in the puddle jump. Do these things at least once. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and just let the worries and cares go every once in a while. Four years of college life will go by at a glacial pace if you can’t find the little things to enjoy to fill in the gaps.

Then, there are the little details. Be nice to everyone. Don’t label yourself, and don’t label others. Read more than just your class textbooks. Learn how to iron, and learn how to cook. Take responsibility for your actions. Do the difficult things in life, because they are the things most worth doing. Discover yourself, because if there is one thing that everyone can get from a Bates College experience, it is a better understanding of what we are individually. What makes us tick, and what makes our lives whole, this is what education is about.

That’s what I wanted to say. This list is by no means exhaustive, but my point is that education is more than just learning what a Grignard reagent is, the meaning behind Northanger Abbey, how DNA replicates, or how gravitational potential energy works. Education is a combination of all of that, plus the experiences that we can’t plan for. The educational experiences that happen when we least expect them, and when we least want them are equally important.

As Mark Twain purportedly said, “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.” Welcome to Bates College.

Arguing with idiots

It is, as we’ve seen in the past, impossible to negotiate with terrorists, and that’s what these people are. Just a week ago, Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) gun control legislation was essentially neutered in an effort to make it more marketable. House Majority Leader Harry Reid opted to remove the oft-controversial assault weapons ban and magazine capacity limits, citing the fact that the bill lacked the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster.

We’re catering to the fringes of society, here. Catering to the groveling fanatics who constantly think—misguidedly—that the government is trying to take their guns away. These are the same people who view the second amendment as being more important to our society than the first, even in the face of a majority of Americans who support gun control measures according to a recent Pew poll.

To any outside observer this debate is simply preposterous. If the massacre of dozens of schoolchildren and schoolteachers cannot sway public opinion in favor of more intelligent regulations of these weapons of mass destruction, then what will? How many people need to die before the American people, as a majority, look at themselves and ask: what have we wrought?

It is admirable what Dianne Feinstein and her allies in Congress are trying to do, but bowing out to the fringe lunacy is, in itself, lunacy. Feinstein herself acknowledges what everyone already knew, “The enemies on this are very powerful. I’ve known this all my life.”

So, what do we do? How do we get the sensible among us to stand up and demand change? To say that we won’t take it anymore? Well, you counter the money that the NRA and other lobbying groups are able to throw at the issue with more money from the other side.

Recently, Michael R. Bloomberg, mayor of New York, has stepped up with his own fortune to try and sway public opinion, as well as the opinion of several “swing” Senators. He said, of his decision, “The N.R.A. has just had this field to itself. It’s the only one that’s been speaking out. It’s time for another voice.”

And the victims of these crimes need to be given a voice. Each time this country is subject to another gun massacre, voices cry out in the night, but are soon cast down to a whimper as groups like the NRA suggest that the only way to prevent more shootings is to add more guns into the mix. I don’t need to highlight the terrible logical progression there. It is patently obvious and patently absurd.

Bloomberg’s campaign is a start, no doubt, and every single effort like this begins with small steps, but an issue like this demands swift and comprehensive change. I know I’ve talked about incremental change for other issues like gay marriage, and even two weeks ago I mentioned incremental change for gun control, but the truth of the matter is that not all issues are created equal. Gun violence, in the eyes of myself, and the eyes of many, is an issue that demands action.

The second amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms in order to maintain a well-regulated militia, but over the decades and centuries this maxim has been warped and loosened to allow gun owners free reign over the issue and conversation. I’ll level with proponents. I have only small qualms about some gun ownership, but suggesting that one needs assault weapons, which are tantamount to those used in the military, to protect one’s home is simply ludicrous.

And so I stand with Dianne Feinstein and Michael Bloomberg on this issue. It has been too long that the NRA, and the fringe groups at the edge of society have been dictating the terms of this hostage situation. You can’t, it seems, argue with idiots any more than you can negotiate with terrorists. We have both groups working in tandem to ensure that everyone has access to the weapon of their choosing, whether they intend to kill themselves or murder any number of innocents.

This country demands change as it has done over and over again for decades. It seems as though change cannot come soon enough, though. One has to wonder how many more gun deaths we will see before we get meaningful conversation on the topic, as well as meaningful change.

Progress at a glacial pace

This week, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) “came out” in support of gay marriage and gay rights, revealing that his own son came out as gay to him and his wife only a few years ago. The response from Portman’s own party has been overwhelmingly mixed, but in general, this is indicative of a great trend in this country.

Portman writes of his shift in his op-ed, “[M]y position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.”

It was only a few months ago that this very state, Maine, became one of the first states to ratify gay marriage by popular vote, and still, on a federal level, there still isn’t legal recognition for same-sex couples. Change is coming, but it is moving at a glacial pace.

But, what of the Senator’s published sentiments? His revelation is based wholly upon the fact that this issue now affects his family directly. He was more than happy to be a gay marriage detractor as long as it had no bearing on his own life, happy to deny a certain percentage of the population the rights that he himself enjoys, but only as long as it doesn’t affect his family. Now, though, the tables have turned, so to speak, as it does affect his family, and that is why he now supports rights for gay couples.

That’s not the point, though. Sure, his motives may be questionable at best, but often enough in history the motives of the radicals have been morally dubious. Abolitionists acting for God, or white guilt, and not necessarily the people they were trying to free. However, the result is the same. If the methods are questionable, but the outcomes the same, is it really any matter how we get there? Yes and no, but the important part as that the result, in this case, is favorable.

Portman even takes a different view on the marriage issue, “One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution.” His admission is one of the fundamental shifts that detractors need to understand. Wanting to marry is not an issue of trying to destroy the “institution.” It is a testament to its importance.

Even though I don’t approve of the way that the Senator arrived at his decision, I do applaud the fact that he arrived there. In a party that overwhelmingly shuns the idea of progress, this, I hope, will become a positive trend.

We can’t always force people to see the light, and indeed, as much as I am loathe to admit, we shouldn’t. If you read my column on a regular basis I often advocate for broad and sweeping reforms, often in the face of popular sentiment. Often enough, these ideas are undoubtedly beneficial, but if no one is ready for them, then why should we force them on the people? The answer is that we shouldn’t.

Gun control is an important issue, and it needs to be urgently addressed, but if over half of the population thinks the government is trying to take their guns, then we’re not going to get sweeping change.

A shift to green and clean energies is necessary for a healthy and secure future, but if we can’t yet convince people of their necessity, then there’s no reason to try and get people to use them.

As much as we’d like to reform overnight, the unfortunate truth is that, like evolution, change is gradual.

The best outcome for this whole ordeal is that we might start to see some of the other Republicans understand that this isn’t about rights for a small portion of the population, but rather it’s really about rights for all. If we start to deny rights to some, then it becomes easier to usurp the rights of others.

In his op-ed, Senator Portman writes, “The process of citizens persuading fellow citizens is how consensus is built and enduring change is forged.” This is the foundation of his argument, and this is what I’ve been missing in these recent years. As the old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. I believe this is what we, as liberal members of society, have to realize. There’s no point in trying to force ideas on people who aren’t ready for it. The best we can do is to make a solid and wide-reaching argument and hope that it lights a spark in the minds of the people.

Out of Tragedy is Born Triumph

Troy Pappas’ final gift, as many may or may not know, was the incredibly important, and oft-forgotten gift of organ donation. This is one of the most important gifts that one can give, bequeathing complex biological material so that one might live, when you yourself cannot. The article recently published tells the story of Troy’s own donation, and the disabled man who benefitted from a new hand.

Organ donation is, I would say, a moral imperative, a dictate of pure reason, as Immanuel Kant would argue. Modern medicine can do so much, but it is also so limited. We can mend bones, replace a heart with a machine, and lengthen life, but for all of these triumphs we still understand that the best replacement for human tissue is more human tissue, not plastics or metals.

Over 100,000 people are currently waiting for an organ, and 18 of them will die each day waiting for an organ that never comes. While many people associate organ donation with a deceased donor the fact is that organ donation from a living donor is just as important.

That Troy and his family thought with such foresight and donated his organs, even in the face of such terribly tragedy, is a testament to human strength and will. A selfless act, in a time when humans want nothing more than to be selfish.

What can we do to make sure that this sort of kindness is offered at every possible chance? What can we do to encourage people to give all that they can give in their final moments, and to leave nothing behind?

People have suggested compensating donors, or offering other incentives as a way to encourage those who don’t—or won’t—donate to sign up. I, however, see this as fundamentally altering the idea of organ donation. It turns it from a form of charity to a business opportunity. In the end the outcome is the same, but the act acquires a sort of moral taint when the concept of money is injected.

The best option, then, is to change public perception and understanding. Indeed, as ideas about death, dying, and illness change, so too does the public’s perceptions about what it means to go to the grave less than whole, so to speak.

If we look at this process as a whole, then, the last piece of the puzzle is the undeniable good that comes out of donation. In Pappas’ case, we know of a man who received his left hand. After being horribly injured in the Station nightclub fire, Joe Kinan was left disfigured and disabled. Through the process I have been describing, Kinan was given Pappas’ hand in order to restore some of the autonomy and functionality that was lacking in Kinan’s life.

The results are nothing short of astounding. In videos posted by the Providence Journal, Kinan has remarkable dexterity and strength in a hand that is, for all intents and purposes, not his own. We see him using his fine motor skills to complete a puzzle and button his shirt, and he is truly grateful for what he has been given.

The case for organ donation, no matter how one looks at it, is the human element. It always has been and it always will be. I can sit here, throw around statistics, preach, and harp all I want, but it means nothing without understanding how these types of acts affect human beings.

Troy Pappas’ accident, tragic though it was, is just such a case. Born of the loss of one young life, how many others have been helped and healed by this young kid is the one redeeming quality of the whole situation. It lessens the sting and the bite that everyone felt at hearing the news.

Troy’s decision, and that of his family, was a courageous one. Through foresight so much good has happened. This decision is one that is never made lightly, but it is the right decision. The decision is commendable, and the burden not inconsiderable, but it is a burden that everyone should take up, for the good of our neighbors and our fellow human beings.

What Hard Alcohol Ban?

Coming off of another weekend here at Bates College, it is probably safe to assume that many people have been abundantly acquainted with the College’s alcohol policy. Ask anyone who regularly imbibes and they will undoubtedly tell you that Bates has a lax policy, especially when compared to the rest of the colleges and universities in the state. The alcohol policy, many will tell you, is meant to keep you safe, but not to punish you for what is often considered pedestrian behavior.

The 2012-2013 Policies for Student Conduct and Safety details the Drug and Alcohol policy—on the first page, so as not to waste any time—in no uncertain terms. “Bates College observes all laws governing the use of alcohol…and does not condone violation of these laws,” the policy begins. One will note the glaring absence of the word “prohibit.” In fact, the policy only prohibits the consumption of alcohol under the pretenses of Maine law, but merely encourages students to observe the law.

Conversely, Bowdoin College, which has a drug and alcohol policy that extends several pages past Bates’ paltry few hundred words, wastes no time in stating that, “Bowdoin prohibits the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of…alcohol by students.”

Now, this should come as no surprise to anyone. Bates’ policies are decidedly cautionary, allowing students, congruent with most other aspects of the Bates culture, to make their own decisions and reap the rewards, or suffer the consequences, as the case may be. Most students seem to accept and even relish this fact.

One senior, who spoke anonymously, suggested that the alcohol policy keeps students on campus, in a safer environment for their drinking. Specifically, he said, where the heavy-handed policies of other colleges and universities create an exodus off campus where binge drinking is the norm, Bates encourages the more responsible consumption of alcohol by informed individuals in a regulated environment.

There is one expressly forbidden aspect of the alcohol culture in the Bates policy, and that refers specifically to what is known as hard liquor. “Bates has initiated a campus-wide ban on hard liquor,” finishes the short commentary on alcohol. This is where the connection between policy and practice becomes interesting.

Although the college prohibits the consumption of what it calls “hard liquor,”—a term left woefully undefined—anyone out on a Friday or Saturday night will find an ample amount of both liquor and beer at almost any gathering. Is either being abused? I would argue that in most cases the answer is that they are being consumed in a fairly responsible fashion. Are there those who take things too far? Yes, there always are, but for the most part students seem to understand the risks that they are taking, and adequately adjust their own practices.

The data, or what little is available, seems to suggest that Bates students are at least a little more responsible with their drinking. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Clery Public Crime statistics show that there were only 46 on-campus liquor law violations referred for disciplinary action, and about seven more which occurred off-campus. For Bowdoin College, however, there were a total of 149 liquor law violations referred for disciplinary action, according to the Clery statistics. Coupled with the harsher alcohol policy, it seems that Bowdoin refers approximately three times as many students as Bates has for the past three years.

Now, what does this all mean? Am I trying to put Bowdoin down? No, not at all. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate in a concise way that a harsher policy towards alcohol does not necessarily equate with a lesser consumption of alcohol; in fact, the statistics seem to suggest that the trend might be the opposite. My analysis of the statistics is fairly basic, but the global trends are most probably valid.

What are we to make of all this, though? Alcohol and college are two things that are intrinsically intertwined in the American psyche, but the responsible use of alcohol is something that must be learned, often through trial-and-error. The Bates College alcohol policy, rather than just prohibiting alcohol outright, fosters an environment where students are able to make their own decisions and not live in fearbution of the law.

Is this to say that the system is perfect? No, but where the other major option is prohibition, a system which historically has not been so successful, the Bates policy seems to function quite well.

So, as you clean up after that party that you just threw by recycling the beer cans, emptying the half-consumed Solo cups, and trying to scrub the smell of stale beer and vomit from your rugs, consider the options that Bates College affords you as members of this society. Even in your attempts to have fun and unwind, Bates is still trying to teach you about being responsible, and this is the college’s great success.

On Compromise

Scott Olehnik--on compromise--credit Assoiated PressWith Congress’s approval rating hovering just around 14 percent, I think it is safe to say that what many people would like to see in the new session of Congress is compromise. However, compromise is often problematic, and, as Paul Krugman said in a recent New York Times article, “implying a symmetry between Republicans and Democrats, isn’t just misleading, it’s actively harmful.” And this is something we need to recognize. In any effort to compromise on anything, there has to be some semblance of equality among the sides. However, it is often the case that one side is actively fighting to subvert the other for little more than perceived political gain.

But, compromise shouldn’t be a dirty word, nor should we just say that one party is right over the other—no matter how my articles may make it sound. After all, unilateral action can have unintended and deleterious consequences.

Let’s take a look at current events, though. The recent, and so-called, “fiscal cliff” fiasco illustrates just what I am talking about. In this case, the crisis was manufactured in the sense that the effort for compromise was essentially a steeplechase. Each time some ground was gained, the bar would be moved by Republicans in the House of Representatives. I was a big advocate for going over the “cliff.” After all, the effects most likely wouldn’t have been immediate, and the overwhelming majority of Americans would have blamed the GOP for the failure to accomplish something. The backlash would have been swift, and the judgment harsh. Something would have been easily done.

This is where Krugman’s statement about both sides having equal footing becomes important. It was clear throughout the entire drawn-out process that Republicans wanted nothing more than to punish the President for winning the recent election. This is politics at its most reckless. Legislating for nothing more than spite does no good for anyone.

So, what’s the solution? First, we need to recognize that in this case not every side is working for what is best for the American people. Am I saying that the GOP has some ulterior big-business motive? No. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that a hefty portion of the proposals that they make have not been shown to be, overall, beneficial. After we recognize this simple fact, then action becomes possible, and we can shun the offer, counter-offer strategy which failed us in December.

On the other side of things, the recent shooting in Connecticut shows the necessity for compromise. The NRA crawled out of its hidey-hole mere days after the tragedy to have Wayne LaPierre make the bold suggestion that, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I guess it’s no matter that many Latin and South American countries do, in fact, have many more “good guys with guns,” and do not have an appreciably lower violent crime rate to show for it, according to the New York Times.

But snarkiness aside, the NRA has been tearing down barriers for gun owners for years now. For many, this is quite positive, but another large portion of the public would argue, and I would tend to agree, that the proliferation of guns in our country is one of the biggest public health issues that we face today.

This is where compromise comes into play. There is a middle ground here, and, as much as I hate to say it, each side has a valid argument. We can have our cake and eat it too in this case. Do we need assault weapons? Do we need high-capacity magazines? Do we need the capability to fire almost 100 bullets in mere minutes, killing 26 adults and children with brutal efficiency? No, unequivocally we do not.

Compromise has become a dirty word in recent years, and it’s no surprise why; there hasn’t been any. There is a time for compromise and a time for unilateral action, but knowing when it is time for one and not the other is the big trick. I advocate for smarter politics. I advocate for conversation and intelligent discourse, not politics for politics sake. We deserve better, and we can do better.

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