Partying Like a Pre-Professional
It is a Thursday night and the CMC student is having a good time. He’s grinning through a tequila haze and grinding his genitals into warm flesh. He’s not thinking about anything much, and in fact couldn’t if he wanted to – with wild strobe lights punching him in the retinas and an EDM bass line thudding out his consciousness. The student and his anonymous partner exit the throng and engage in something you’d feel uncomfortable calling love-making. Later, he sleeps – dreamless in his liquor-sweat. He will stare in numb incomprehension at a tricky accounting problem most of tomorrow afternoon. This isn’t an essay on the cadre of students who party with religious fervor – the shriveled liver of the student body, the Tuesday night regulars. This is a commentary on CMC party culture in broad terms, made with the idea in mind that a substantial segment of the student population can to some degree identify with the “CMC student” described above – stylized, fictive, and gendered though he is. My view is that the compulsive and mindless way CMCers party is symptomatic of a failure of pre-professionalism to prepare students to understand themselves and live well.
The myth undergirding the pre-professional ethos: college students can be reliably counted upon to know exactly what they want in a career such that they will be able to throw themselves into vocational training without reservation. This is dangerous horseshit. Almost no college student has a good idea of what they want in life, because almost nobody really knows who they are as a young person. Figuring out who you are requires what Bill Deresiewicz calls “soul building” – a terrifying process of continual reorientation in which you explore the different identities available to you. Of course, being adolescents, most students try to evade the existential horror of crafting identities for themselves by partying hard. As David Foster Wallace put it: “You think it's a coincidence that it's in college that most Americans do their most serious falling-down drinking and drugging and reckless driving and rampant fucking and mindless general Dionysian-type reveling?”
At CMC this tendency for escapism manifests itself as a myopic work-hard play-hard ethic whereby pre-professional kids assuage their weekly buildup of existential anxiety and identity-confliction by letting loose at school-sponsored ragers. You think GEs are sufficient to equip students to live reflective, fulfilling lives? Take a closer look at the seething herd of kids rubbing on each other in their TNC pen next Thursday. Do they look reflective? Do they look fulfilled? Finance kids graduate into alcoholism and cocaine-addiction in significant numbers; the patron of the Robert Day School narrowly missed death by liver cirrhosis in 2005, for example. Others have pointed out that the ‘happiest college in America’ label masks and intensifies the anxiety and depression issues with which many CMC students struggle, and Shannon Miller’s meditation on fear of silence is an excellent first-person account. I suspect more students with narratives of depression and anxiety will emerge from the woodwork for the following reason: ours is a school where students crave relief from their anxiety, and CMC’s party culture isn’t delivering.
The even more insidious half of the pre-professionalism myth is that once a student masters the technical skills of their profession they’ll be able to live a happy and successful life – that it’s ok to be confused and unhappy and unfulfilled in college because once a kid lands a job at Goldman they’ll finally be able to kick back and enjoy spending their hard-won earnings. But financial stability doesn’t guarantee emotional stability, and postponing happiness is not a viable strategy for living well. There are always reasons to postpone happiness: waiting to reach the next rung in the corporate ladder, waiting until the kids are grown-up, waiting for retirement. What pre-professional kids are really doing is training themselves to bounce between the poles of unfulfillment and inebriation for the rest of their lives. You can’t “pre-game” life like you “pre-game” a party.
I depart from Professor Kind’s commencement address in thinking that living well does primarily consist in being happy. But happiness comes in both short-term and long-term varieties. The existentially anxious college student might be happiest in the short term by getting smashed at every possible opportunity – and many do so with zeal. But long term happiness requires being at peace with yourself, being at home in your personhood. The usual career advice is to follow your passion – but you can only do this if you allow yourself time to develop into a fully-fledged person with genuine passions. Long-term happiness requires knowing who you are. As Louis C.K. put it, “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something…that’s being a person.”
This isn’t a humanities plug, exactly, nor is it a recommendation that all students should major solely in what interests them. I realize that some students are under heavy pressure to get high-paying jobs so they can pay off student loans or support their families. Instead, what I have in mind is that students should think about their happiness in both the long and short terms, and should explore the various kinds of pleasures available in the world. There’s much more to life than the work-hard-play-hard mantra suggests. Develop a vibrant life of the mind by broadening the scope of your intellectual interests, inside the classroom and out. Throw yourself into social and ethical commitments with gusto, if you feel so compelled. Figure out which cultural aesthetics appeal to you and try them on for size. Try being mindful and present in all you do. There are more ways to live than you could ever possibly pursue in a lifetime, and, being a CMC student, you’re in a fantastic position to capitalize on whichever you choose.
I can’t help but think that something like this thought must occur to the hard-partying pre-professionals, perhaps not in these terms, but in spirit. This may be because the recognition that ways-of-life are infinitely varied has a paralyzing effect on the adolescent soul. But imagine yourself thirty years from now. You have to wonder: are the lecherous middle-aged alumni traipsing around pirate party with solo-cups in hand really happy? What about the elderly guy with the oxygen tank pounding shots two years ago? Is (or was) he living the good life? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I know this: You have to learn to know and love yourself as more than your résumé. A fulfilling career is a byproduct and an outgrowth of this project. Don’t give up on that Bain internship – if that’s what you really want – but don’t peg your happiness to an interview outcome. The price is far too high.
I think that if CMC students shift out of their pre-professional mindset, the status-quo bump-and-grind party scene will start to seem even less attractive than it already is. Perhaps this is the road back to the halcyon days Aditya Pai talked about in his senior-year memo, where students sipped beers and talked about the Federalist papers on Thursday nights. Perhaps it isn’t. Regardless, you have to think that CMC party culture would change a good deal if students didn’t drink with the aim of drowning out their fears about who they are and how to live. As long as kids rush blindly along their pre-professional corridors, drunken grind-fests will feel like the best option for quelling their existential terror – but the good life is far broader and more beautiful and more profound than this. Wake up, CMC.
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