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October 17, 2011

Losing your place

Identity is now more influenced by global dialogue than by local culture.

Something caught my eye a couple of days ago. It was a bold pronouncement by The New York Times: “College Diversity Nears Its Last Stand.” Though it was clearly a reference to the issue of affirmative action, I was thinking about something else; I was thinking about place.

The article from the Times points out that there’s a real possibility that the use of “diversity” as a legal justification—the only remaining one at that—for racial preferences in public universities’ admission processes could end by June, when a decision is reached in the latest case on affirmative action. But I find myself more concerned about whether or not we’re becoming less diverse in other ways, ways that don’t depend so heavily on a Supreme Court decision.

To a certain degree, college is as much about convergence as it is about diversity. Take the Core, for one. It’s a way of developing a common discourse, a baseline, a jumping- off point. Did you like Marx? No, he was brutal. Durkheim’s arguments were much stronger. You’re kidding.

The Core, though, is a type of convergence that is essential to a sense of community here, to the unique sense of “us” that encompasses the undergraduate population at the U of C.

Yet there’s still another convergence occurring as well—a sort of cultural “coming together” facilitated by an increasingly far-reaching and influential social connectivity. The more we’re connected socially, the more we will be reading the same things and watching the same things (What’s trending on Twitter? What’s everyone talking about on my newsfeed?), and the more vital it will seem to us to be part of the new cultural canon. We always want a piece of the conversation, but what if it’s the same conversation everyone else in the world is having?

So, what I’ve been wondering lately, is this: At what point does place cease to matter? At what point does the cultural baseline become so widespread that where we physically come from loses its meaning because, in a sense, we will all be coming from the same place, a nebulous web of connections facilitated by social media? And is there a limit to this cultural convergence?

I have a friend, for instance, who spent her childhood in suburban Florida. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, hundreds of miles away. We both share a feeling of alienation from the physical place where we grew up; it just doesn’t feel as though I belong to that place or that the place belongs to me. In fact, I don’t really feel as though I’m from that suburb at all, though I spent the vast majority of my life in exactly that place. There are remarkable similarities in our upbringings, despite the obvious fact that Florida is not Illinois. We often talk about the same TV shows we loved as kids (‘Dexter’s Lab’, ‘Hey Arnold’) or the books we obsessed over (Artemis Fowl, The Golden Compass) or even the ways we found to waste our time (aimlessly drive around neighborhoods, sit outside coffee shops, and talk late into the night). It’s not the local bands we listened to, but the same bands from Canada or Iceland or even Senegal.

Ostensibly, these are very positive developments. We’re becoming more cosmopolitan, leaving behind the idiosyncrasies of the specific. A global dialogue rooted in culture is emerging; certainly, this should go a long way toward greater communication and thus greater understanding. Right?

This phenomenon of convergence intensifies when we leave those roots and all gather in a common place—what happens when we go to college, for example—and become a student body with a basically uniform lifestyle. There is, as far as I can perceive, a greater capacity to relate to each other because of the cultural baseline. But there’s also a certain richness that’s lost because we can talk about all the same things, which seems strange to say. People who really love their hometown (my roommate, for example, is more from Lancaster, Pennsylvania than anyone I’ve ever met is from somewhere) are fading. We don’t talk about place much anymore. We talk about the baseline.

If you’re lucky enough to come from a Lancaster rather than an Anywhere, Illinois, hold tight to those roots—the diversity of college campuses depends on it. But if you don’t have a Lancaster, there’s always this place to make your own and to carry with you into the future. Take the eccentricities of this campus, this neighborhood, and this city, and remember all the details. The details, after all, are what matter.

Emily Wang is a second-year in the College majoring in English.

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