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Here we are at the end of the year, and while there is a wealth of topics to consider for my last column, I feel I must be rather old-fashioned today and criticize our culture’s current obsession with “social media.” And I’m okay with being old-fashioned on this particular issue. Because as college students, we are nothing if not social. We are surrounded by thousands of peers, we take pride in a work-hard, play-hard balance, and we become very upset when New York Times reporters criticize the quality of our dating pool.But if we really stop to think about it, what are our best moments with friends? If you’re like me, your best memories include meaningful conversations, weekend parties and impromptu lunch dates. In other words, they include spending time with actual people, not staring at a computer screen and pretending to laugh out loud. In the interests of honesty, however, I must admit that I am sadly not immune to the seductive power of virtual contact. I have spent far too many hours waiting for Facebook to tell me my picture upload has been a “Success!” and I don’t see myself deactivating my account any time soon, if only for the neurotic need to feel “connected.” So who am I to criticize the social networking revolution? Don’t sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter serve a unique and valuable role in promoting understanding between different people and cultures who never would have met otherwise?Well, I can’t be sure. All I know is that I am hit with a pang of embarrassment when I look at UNC’s home-page and find convenient links to Facebook, iTunes, Twitter and YouTube right next to the “Administration” heading. It’s the same kind of mild embarrassment you feel when someone wears four-inch heels to a 9 a.m., or when Regina George’s mother in “Mean Girls” offers to serve alcohol and says that she’s a “cool mom.” It’s just trying too hard.And I suppose this is my real problem with the recent explosion in social networking’s popularity. Facebook was cool when it was a college phenomenon taking over the world, but now that everyone’s mother, grandmother and employer is enthusiastically logging on and posting pictures of children’s birthday parties, it’s just … lame. The middle-aged masses have colonized our Facebook, and they have killed it.But at least Facebook is still more “social” than “networking” for now. The worst of the social media sites has to be LinkedIn.On LinkedIn, there’s not even the pretence of actual human connection; exploitation of other people’s contacts and shameless self-promotion are the name of the game. Although, again, I am guilty. I have succumbed and created an account, because UNC Career Services tells me I need to if I want to be successful. Still, I haven’t brought myself to actually create the profile or start “building my network” yet. Again, sorry to sound old-fashioned, but all of this “new media” makes me want to go back to the old days. Maybe we didn’t have virtual poking back then, but we did have eye contact.
Yes, it’s that time of the year again: college tour season. You know it’s spring in Chapel Hill when it is impossible to walk from one side of the quad to the other without encountering a semi-circle of high school students and their parents, all listening with varying degrees of interest to a current Carolina student shouting enthusiastically about first-year seminars and the like.It’s all supposed to be very jolly and informative, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling distinctly depressed when coming across these adolescent hordes. This doesn’t really make sense, however, since my own UNC tour was a happy jaunt through blooming cherry trees and dappling sunlight. I was hooked after that tour, thinking that once accepted I would be like Keats or Wordsworth, languidly writing masterpieces in my free hours, soaking up the sunlight as inspiration for lyrical ballads, etc. So why, with this glorious experience in mind, do the tour groups have a tendency to hit me with a wave of near-nausea? I suppose it’s because I empathize with the long, hard struggle that threatens to consume these poor high school students before they even get to college.Compared to the slog through endless tests, extracurricular activities and “leadership” positions necessary for any 16-year-old hoping to attend a decent university, Chapel Hill in spring is not simply an impossibly green, park-like haven.It is a veritable Willy Wonka Land of carousels and pony rides; it is sweet relief from SATs, gray hallways and bathroom passes. So if the source of my disgust upon encountering tour groups is the pang of empathy I feel for those undergoing the college admissions process, then I must ask why the system is so terrible in the first place. Rather than educating students, high schools now function as factory assembly lines for college hopefuls. Everyone knows that without a full schedule of AP or IB classes and a solid record of attempting to save the world by age 17 (and preferably succeeding), admission to the United States’ top universities is out of the question. The problem is that this is not education. It is a rat race that tolerates no creativity or intellectual ingenuity, and it is producing a generation of teacher-pleasers, not thoughtful, interesting people.In America today, many of the 18-year-olds at the best colleges were the most cut-throat or cynical in high school, not necessarily the most intelligent or academically inquisitive. Any educator can confirm that some of the most gifted students are those who do well, but not exceptionally; they are the ones reading constantly and voraciously, not plotting the next trendy extracurricular activity.This is unacceptable. The purpose of education is to develop intellectuals who are capable of enriching the world, not to reward a resume of meaningless club memberships. So to all the high school juniors trying to get accepted: I feel for you. Hang in there, play the game just a little while longer, and try to keep your real interests and your real selves alive. You’ll actually get to use them in college.
In our current economic crisis, college students are more concerned than ever about their degrees’ value in a competitive job market. It takes a sort of stubbornness these days to decide to be an English, history or romance languages major, as students in these fields are forced ad nauseam to answer the elusive question “What will you do with that?”“Oh, I don’t know,” we sheepishly reply, “probably law school,” even though the thought of billing hours and perfecting our rote memorization skills for three years is about as attractive as embalming for a living. But nonetheless, this answer gives some kind of solid credence to our supposedly unpractical choice, so that the business major or pre-med student will leave us in peace, free to contemplate the subtleties of the book “Light in August” and to ignore the looming LSAT.However, this bleak aura of disrespect for those of us committing ourselves to art and literature is not a necessary evil, or even a particularly recent one. In the past few decades, the percentage of students receiving degrees in English has declined steadily, translating into less variety in courses, less support for graduate studies and far fewer jobs for professors.But why are students abandoning the humanities in favor of more “practical” subjects? Are we as a generation simply less interested in literature and the arts, or are we just too afraid to stray from the supposedly job-secure course? It seems to me that the latter explanation is more probable, since we live in a world where security of any kind seems more and more elusive.But while the explanation might make sense, the reality is that the humanities do matter, and allowing their decline is simply not good for human advancement.After all, what is more practical than endeavoring to discover the human condition? Anything but esoteric and irrelevant to “real life,” literature delves into the deepest parts of the human psyche, forcing us to come to terms with tragedy and joy in ways that are necessarily ignored in classes about business administration. Of course, I do not want to decry other majors or criticize their implications for our society. Bankers and doctors and lawyers are necessary for society to function efficiently, and these professions have immense importance in solving the problems of our day. But we have to ask ourselves, what about after the problems are solved? What are we fighting for when we cry against genocide and dirty water in poor countries?In demanding practical solutions for social injustice, we pride ourselves on valuing and protecting human potential. Likewise, the function of literature and art is to explore and define that potential, to take it to its limits to see what we are really made of as a species.Frankly, I don’t want to live in a world that only values the practical.Why should we limit ourselves to our lives’ obligations, logistics and statistics when we have such a wealth of creative indulgence all around us?
In my last column, I expressed my general frustration with UNC’s course requirement system, that cruel plague threatening to overthrow our education in favor of mindless, rote box-checking.Building off this theme, I would like to address specifically the lifetime fitness requirement, a particularly onerous component of our curriculum.I can already hear many saying, “But Olivia, lifetime fitness promotes physical fitness and teaches us healthy habits. There’s nothing wrong with a little exercise.”And to those people I say yes, indeed — if you personally enjoy taking LFIT classes as inspiration for healthy living, please be my guest.What I do take issue with is everyone’s mandatory conscription into the LFIT department, whether we like it or not.The purpose of universities is to challenge us intellectually, teach us how to think for ourselves and allow us to gain at least some degree of expertise in a chosen discipline.But for some reason, American universities seem intent on treating their students as children in need of constant prodding, not as adults seeking higher education.Illogically, the lifetime fitness classes aim to instill in us a “lifetime” commitment to health upon the completion of a one-semester walking class. We are told that this is for our own good, to improve our physical fitness, and we have to accept it.But more than simply a senseless attempt to combat the obesity “epidemic” through about 32 hours of exercise total, the lifetime fitness requirement is an obvious example of the degree to which American students are denied their proper share of adulthood.Telling me that I am unable to monitor my own health at the age of 20 is akin to telling me that I am not really an adult, that I have more to learn before I can be trusted to handle my own life.It means that an undergraduate degree is no more about pursuing an academic field than it is about learning elementary school-level health concepts. Most importantly, I am effectively denied autonomy over my own body.Unfortunately, this privacy invasion is incredibly common in American universities. Sharing rooms denies us any sort of real privacy; like students in a boarding school, we are expected to sleep side-by-side and forced to give up the level of personal space that adults are assumed to need.In the same way, America’s war on underage drinking is no more than a misguided attempt to treat adults as children; again, our bodies are not our own, because even a drop of alcohol makes us technically guilty.While exercise is certainly necessary for a healthy lifestyle, a childish fitness requirement is an unfortunate testament to American universities’ unwillingness to cede parental control over their students.We legally become adults at 18, and as adults we should have the right to run twice a week or not, to share a room or live singly, to drink a beer or teetotal.Either way, I expect UNC to give me a high-level understanding of English literature, not a mindless series of laps around a track.Olivia Blanchard is an English major from Atlanta, GA. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
When I first decided to come to UNC, I was excited about the beautiful quads, the friendly atmosphere and the chance to learn from some of the nation’s best professors. What I wasn’t expecting was to have to jump through a series of daunting hoops in hopes of one day graduating.Don’t get me wrong, I love UNC, and I’m sure I will miss it after 2011. But the advisers in Steele apparently want me to stay here until I’m 30, slowly wading through more unforeseen course requirements like an obstacle course or an expensive goose chase.I know that academic administrators decided to overhaul things in an effort to make the UNC experience as scholarly as possible, and I appreciate their good intentions.I completely understand that they want me to know something about “Global Issues.” And “The World Before 1750” seems like an exciting place indeed. But to be fair, aren’t “Global Issues” and “Beyond the North Atlantic” rather the same idea? The 19 general education requirements listed in my course search engine seem like a mostly repetitive, inevitably confusing, labyrinthine journey through the circles of hell. I’ve so far beaten back the demons of “Historical Analysis,” “Foreign Language” and “Social and Behavioral Science,” but “Quantitative Reasoning” and “Visual and Performing Arts” seem to await eagerly, bludgeons in hand.And why, might you ask, have I yet to fulfill my quantitative requirements even though I am a second-semester junior? The reason is simple: I despise math. I’ve never liked it — I’m pursuing a degree in English, and I think I’m entitled to feel that these requirements are unnecessary. Imagine my chagrin freshman year upon realizing that I would be required to take not only one math course, but two, the second one sneakily hidden under the “Connections” heading. I feel a great sense of loss when looking back at the number of hours I have spent during the past 2.5 years trying to grasp the sadistic interplay of “Connections,” “Approaches” and “Foundations.” I have looked through course books, written class combinations down on note cards, and seemingly have gotten the gist of it, only to begin the journey anew the next semester.The system simply isn’t intuitive. “Connections,” “Approaches” and “Foundations” are merely jargon that intensify the confusion of course requirements, adding layers to an already bloated design. It’s bad enough that I still don’t know what “U.S. Diversity” is supposed to mean (Shouldn’t my American literature class count? Apparently not.) without having to figure out how the three-tiered system is possibly supposed to connect to my major. It really doesn’t help that some courses can count for multiple requirements; it’s frustrating to feel that any kind of efficiency in completing a degree requires a treasure hunt. How am I supposed to concentrate on studying when I’m constantly paranoid that my current classes aren’t the most clever combination?Administrators might have had good intentions in designing our new three-pronged course system, but as the recent fine arts requirement debacle has shown, the program is just not working. We need more transparency, less redundancy and respect for wanting to graduate sometime before we hit middle age.