The Wesleyan Condition is an endless curiosity that can never go far enough. No matter what academic category our curiosities may fall under, we find ways to make them relevant to many others. This never-ending intersectional curiosity leads us to question the very underpinnings of almost everything, including our own time.
This is why Wesleyan is called a “radical” school, because we are radical in the truest sense. We question the very underpinnings of everything, often to the annoyance of our friends and family back home. This questioning can and should lead us to be quite uncomfortable with many aspects of modernity. Although we do not all share the same tactics in our efforts to make the world a better place, some form of civic engagement is what unites Wesleyan students in their collective, intellectual endeavor while they study in Middletown.
There are certainly students at the University who consider themselves apolitical, but there is really no such thing as being apolitical, both in the “real world” and at the University. We are all connected, and we all have opinions and beliefs that affect how we act, whether we know it or not. For most people, Wesleyan is a hyper-liberal atmosphere where it feels like the far left is never far enough. This leads many students to conclude over their time here that they “became more conservative,” or discovered what they “really believe.” Conversely, we all know someone who has become substantially more radical in their beliefs over the course of their time at the University. I would argue that these phenomena stem from the same root: a confrontation with progressive thought that can be so new, foreign, and even scary that it profoundly changes us, whether immediately or over time, whether for better or worse.
I would like to believe that people changing at a progressive school is a good thing, especially because I truly believe that this stems from genuine intellectual curiosity. However, we are also producing a new form of intolerance at Wesleyan that I hope will be merely a flash in the pan rather than the beginning of a new trend in the twenty-first century.
As many prospective students like we once were descend upon campus for WesFest, we are reminded of our own hopes and preconceived notions of the University, and one of the most common ones is that it is an incredibly tolerant place. Although inclusion is part of the ethos of this school—as can be seen with our gender neutral bathrooms, African American Studies program, experimental artwork, and speech code—all of these cases are at the very least the partial result of grassroots student activism that worked to improve the status quo that was at one point, and in some ways still is, intolerant. The Is This Why movement is the latest form of a long line of racial justice campaigns on this campus that go back to the very origins of the American Civil Rights Movement, where even Wesleyan professors went down South to join the Freedom Riders. Wesleyan is still a school with a majority of white students, and there seems to be a large disparity between who appears on the University home page and who is valued as a member of the community.
Another important aspect of tolerance to address is that of dissenting opinion at one of the most progressive schools in the country. While we should never tolerate hate speech, we must allow room for dissent in our political discourse on campus. In fact, we should encourage dissent so that our views can be stronger. Yet in practice, the tendency of students trying to “out-left” each other when weighing in on topics on social media or even in the classroom can lead students who haven’t made up their minds or who have a different opinion to remain in silence. This is not the kind of civic engagement we should be producing at a school of this quality.
Of course there are historical narratives that are important to keep in mind regarding more conservative opinions that are more predominant in the United States, such as white-supremacy, male-supremacy, heteronormativity, and the countless others that we ought to learn more about while we are here. This is not, however, an excuse to shelter oneself from dissenting opinion during one’s time at the University. Many students already cannot shelter themselves from societal forces that are supposed to be absent at Wesleyan, such as being asked to present one’s student ID as a student of color when using University transportation, or being asked where one is “really from” as a student of color. Although Wesleyan is a bubble to a large extent, it is never separated from the world or the U.S. in its problems.
This unease with what is and what ought to be, with the past and present, with off-campus and on-campus, is what drives the intellectual curiosity that makes our school so great. Our campus debates do not always have two sides, with sometimes three, four, or more viewpoints being represented on issues ranging from Israeli-Palestinian relations to cultural appropriation in program housing. As our vocabularies grow with words that will be unrecognizable to our friends and family at Thanksgiving dinner, we also grow as people during our time here thanks to the deep reservoirs of emotion and knowledge within each of member of the Wesleyan community. While I’m not promising a complete identity crisis or makeover to come with one’s degree from the University, I do believe that the coupling of this school’s culture with its intellectual rigor will drive you to always want to learn more, and to hopefully never settle for what is, choosing instead to question the underpinnings of whatever is in front of you, and to put the pieces back together in a better way as you move forward.
So the next time you walk by the names and faces of our alumni, whether in the athletic center or in your department’s senior theses, take a moment to engage with their legacy to remind yourself that they never stopped questioning, and neither should you.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.