Khanna: Dutiful Kids, Spineless Adults

Fear of repercussion prevents students from claiming agency.

by Maya Khanna | 1/8/19 2:00am

A sullen silence filled our kitchen in the early morning before I left the house to board our team bus for a cross-country meet in Duluth, Minnesota. A receipt for the Nov. 2017 SAT subject tests lay on the kitchen table next to my packed cross-country bag. My ears rang with shouts from the night before, disbelieving exclamations of “You want to skip your SATs to run in a cross country meet?”—angry and cutting, even in the quiet of the early morning. As time ticked away, I was reminded of my impending choice: the decision to continue as I always had, on the path that others had set for me. Or the opportunity to forge into the unknown territory of disobedience, alone. Closing my eyes, I picked up my cross-country bag and left the house without looking back.

Upon hearing this story, many readers might consider my thoughts of defiance exemplifications of a naughty child trying to rationalize bad behavior. Obedience and regard for duty are often seen as virtues of the highest order: placed among the most innocent and selfless of attributes that an individual may possess. In childhood stories, we all learn what happens to bad children when they disobey authority — they end up as food for wolves (“Little Red Riding Hood”), burdened with shoes that will never come off (“The Red Shoes”) or chased by an angry farmer (“Peter Rabbit”). At school, students are rewarded for their adherence to a certain set of guidelines when taking standardized tests with high scores; Scantrons care little for the manner in which “correctness” was achieved. Most children are taught from a young age not to “back-talk,” “sass-mouth,” or any of the other popular ways to reference the undesirable qualities of cheek, boldness and spirit that characterize the antithesis of the obedient child.

However, the immediate and common direction to this pattern of thought must lead us to consider the merits of balancing a measure of obedience necessary to cohesively exist within mainstream society with the consideration of one’s true passions — even when they don’t necessarily command the logic of the more “practical” option. For generations, many people have focused so much on the traditional definitions of “success” that it is easy to blind ourselves to the importance of finding personal fulfillment. Instead, too many people walk around mundanely completing the tasks necessary to get up the next day only to repeat the same cycle all over again.

I am not suggesting that these duties be entirely disregarded; on the contrary, they are important parts of life that are essential not only for our own wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of those we care about. Yet by only completing tasks essential to the continuation of our everyday lives, or in preparation for the immediate next objective, we focus solely on becoming the person we are supposed to be; we then roundly disregard the development of the person we are.

At Dartmouth, the embodiment of “duty gone wrong” is evident in various ways around campus. Many students avoid exploring a variety of subjects, focusing only on taking classes that pertain to their intended field of study. Others focus their efforts only on the traditional “money-making” disciplines, without any actual interest. But by becoming perfectly obedient lemmings to major requirements and post-graduation financial prospects, too many students lose the opportunity to explore undiscovered interests in alternative subjects. Still other students lose sight of their own goals and passions in the face of perceived expectations from various authority figures in their lives. These students lose the opportunity to grow into adulthood here at Dartmouth, remaining meek children in fear of the repercussions they might face were they to declare their right to independent thought from authority figures in their lives. In each instance, obedience is not a praiseworthy, selfless act; instead, it is a way to avoid having to take the responsibility to create a life on one’s own terms.

Choosing duty over passion, or passion over duty, is not inherently brave nor inherently cowardly. Yet the refusal to take an active role in building one’s own life as a competent adult represents spinelessness of the highest degree. One of the goals of a Dartmouth education as purported by the College’s mission statement is “to instill a sense of responsibility for each other, and the broader world.” As college students, we are uniquely placed to explore ourselves and the world in a way that we never will again. We must therefore consider the importance of fulfilling our responsibility to ourselves by becoming active participants in our own lives, rather than allowing others to decide what our lives should be.