It’s now officially a crisis: the Economist is running their cover story on the swine flu. And listening to Joe Biden, it appears that we should begin preparing that mountain bunker we keep putting off (or at least stay off the subway). We’re up to a level 5 on the CDC watch list. I don’t know what that means, but that’s one step away from 6, a full pandemic. Personally, all I want to know is how close we are to 28 Days Later. Yet even with President Gann firing off increasingly hysterical emails, CMC students seem to be unworried. I have yet to see one of those surgical masks on the 5-Cs. That’s a remarkable disconnect from the reaction of the real world. I’m not saying that there’s necessarily cause for concern, but I think that it’s interesting that there’s really not the slightest hint of panic on the 5-Cs. Green beach is still the idyllic temple of sun-worshipers, Wednesday bowling is as popular as ever, and campus is generally the relaxed and pleasant place that it always is. In the real world, people are freaking out. We, however, seem to be discussing the swine flu as a policy curiosity – not as a real threat. We really are in a bubble.
I think, though, that the college bubble is more nuanced than popularly assumed. People often take the college bubble to be a geographic phenomenon. The idea is that we all spend the vast majority of our time in one location. But how then do you explain students studying abroad? Are they not in the bubble? I find it hard to believe – despite the cliché utterances that studying abroad is a life changing experience and that you simply must do it – that college students studying the cultural curiosities of another country (with practicums on local drinking habits) are not in the bubble. Regardless, I think that we’re equally in the bubble when we “wear it” at TNC or at the Dodgers game tonight.
Or sometimes people will say that it is a question of privilege. We’re in the bubble because we’re all well off. Assuming for the sake of argument that poorer students still have a good standard of living, this still misses the specific nature of the college bubble. Rich people in general may have the ability to satisfy their material desires, but they are not guaranteed the ability to satisfy their other concerns (evidence: Paris Hilton). At CMC, we really are. Everyone here is guaranteed the capability to pursue things they have good reasons to value. Don’t believe me? Ask Jim Nauls.
I would like to propose that the college bubble is the fact that during these magical four years the concerns of distributive justice simply do not apply. The primary question in college is what to do – not whether you can do it. It’s as if college life is the utopia Marx envisions after the revolution:
“…each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” –Karl Marx, The German Ideology
You could study, play Boccie, go to class, not go to class, go to TNC, watch a "movie", etc: really you can do whatever you like. This is the fundamental reason we call college a “bubble”. Here the swine flu example is illustrative. Regardless of whether the swine flu is a serious threat to world health, it doesn’t scare us because we’re removed from the concerns of the world. It is but a mere remainder in the complex system – economic, political, and cultural – that governs our world. College is an aberration of calm and stability in the storm that is the world. We need to remember that our ideas, however sophisticated, are necessarily tweaked in potentially unexpected ways by the curvature and sheen of the bubble. Deep down I think we all know this, but I think we could definitely be a little more cognizant that – obvious as it may appear – we are not ultimately immune from troubles of the world. Our bubble is more fragile and easily popped than we realize. So would someone – just someone – please go survivalist and hide out in a bunker in the mountains. We could use the reminder.