Big Questions, Little Answers

Many of us probably noticed the massive banners hanging from the front of Frost Library and Valentine Dining Hall last week. In prominent bold letters, they displayed the question, “When do you conform?” Ironically, the large size of the banners, their positions overlooking the campus’ main quads and their odd wording in the second person all gave them an eerily Orwellian feel, as if they seemed to be aimed at promoting the same sort of groupthink that the question was meant to address.

Perhaps, however, it really is not that ironic. Pondering the same contrived question that everyone else is pondering does seem fairly conformist. In fact, the question brilliantly answers itself. You conform when you question when do you conform — thus, illustrating and characterizing the nature of conformity at the College: conformity is not about the answers we are able to produce, because there is no lack of those; it is about the questions we are willing, or unwilling, to ask.

Socially, the College’s intimate size creates a mindset focused on mitigating risk, rather than maximizing opportunity. Most of the time we are more fixated on questioning whether our actions might violate some tacit and arbitrary code of awkwardness than questioning what foregone dialogues, exchanges and friendships that inaction may cost us.

Politically, the dialogue on campus can be monolithic. A vocal subset of campus often dictates the ideological norms of public discussion, discouraging and alienating those who might hold contrary beliefs from openly expressing them.

Academically, the College rewards students capable of delivering the appropriate answers to predetermined questions. Professors, who are highly specialized in their discipline, often have difficulty articulating ideas without using their field’s academic vernacular, and while many disciplines face serious epistemological problems, most instructors gloss over the assumptions and controversies of important models and theories, especially at the introductory level.

Asking when do you conform suggests that conformity occurs in discrete situations and circumstances, but conformity is a gradual and continual process. It is the accumulation of little things, and bit by bit that slight unwillingness to leave your comfort zone, suddenly leaves you in a very uncomfortable spot.