Verbum Ultimum: Conspicuous Awareness

Awareness is a challenging but necessary exercise.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/19/17 1:45am

This column was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

The average morning routine of a Dartmouth student likely involves a wake-up groan, eyes pried open by a depleting supply of willpower, a cold shower and copious amounts of caffeine. Being physically awake allows us to learn and experience; develop and share. Being awake gives us a working mind but not necessarily a receptive one, allowing us to listen but not necessarily understand or empathize.

The education we receive at Dartmouth is a valuable one, powerful even. But nothing we learn from classes, extracurricular activities or research programs means anything if we do not also learn from each other. It is often easy to assume that the two are intertwined, though that may not always be the case. When students participate in seminar classes, where every word they say factors into a percentage of their grade, are they listening to the dialogue around them or rehearsing their own script? Before we raise our hands, we should figure out whether each comment builds on the existing dialogue or is an attempt to compare, criticize and outdo. Individually, most students strive to keep an open mind, but we should ask ourselves if we are collectively succeeding in that effort.

Even when we do genuinely listen, there is still a difference between acknowledging different opinions and being willing to change our own. We might hear what someone has to say but never give that person the opportunity to break through the rigidity of our own judgment and shape our perspective. Being flexible to change and acknowledging our own lack of understanding is by no means easy — it means exposing the rifts in our own intellect and admitting that we are vulnerable. But it is a necessary part of true awakening.

The stratification and separation arguably intrinsic to the college experience only adds to the challenge. Most students tend to surround themselves with people who are similar to them, with whom they have common habits or values and with whom they can have easy, self-affirming conversations. As a result, even when we think we are engaging in real discourse, we end up within the confines of echo chambers, congratulating ourselves on being “woke” but never actually learning anything we did not already know. Some of those conversations may be mentally stimulating, but rarely do they break any real barriers.

Most students tend to fall into two camps. Either we believe ourselves to be open-minded when we are not, or we recognize that we are not but believe true open-mindedness is out of reach. Whether superficial or cynical, the way we engage with each other directly impacts the way they engage with the challenges they face. The individual and structural hurdles to open-mindedness manifest themselves in our activism. Our mindsets thus lead us to no more than a surface-level understanding of the issues we discuss, and a surface-level understanding of anything can only create a surface-level solution.

As a result, even the best of intentions can contribute to our collective blindness, hypocrisy and ineptitude. When students speak with those of other groups, they cannot necessarily comprehend their experiences. Going to a Black Lives Matter demonstration is not a substitute for embodying the values of that movement into our daily lives. Wearing apparel for a cause may raise some awareness, but in most cases that visibility serves only as a self-congratulatory proof of activism.

Using “awareness” in a performative context can raise issues of its own. Instead of spending their time advocating for something students may criticize their peers for not advocating enough. But the moment they find satisfaction in being more aware than those around them is the moment they become complacent, which leads to inaction. Inaction is not what we are here for, not what we owe to everyone who helped us get here and not what we owe to those we plan on serving, working with or leading.

As this academic year draws to a close, some students are graduating in three weeks, others in three years. All of us can do better by being awake in the truest sense of the word. Certainly, the College has a role to play in fostering opportunities that allow for students’ personal moral development and that give them the space, time and conditions to realize their own values and engage with each other more meaningfully. But in the end, being willing to do so is up to us.

Waking up is about more than just getting out of bed every morning to go to class. It is about letting go of our apathy, our shallowness and our need to compare. It is also about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and using the strength we have to combat our fear of judgment, disagreement or rejection. Critically, waking up is about being there for one another. If we decide to care more about each other, we will inevitably become better listeners, closer partners and stronger fighters. Ultimately, our choice of how we view and judge others affects who we are as people. A Dartmouth education and experience is an opportunity to change our view of the world, our view of others and our view of ourselves. Let us use it well.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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