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There is a university that exists where everyone says hi to each other. They greet one another with a warm embrace, arms outstretched and welcoming. Most of the time, the hugs aren’t hollow. Everyone eats together. They live together. Community is more than a euphemism. Apartness is elided.

At this university that exists, excellence is not the order of the day. Evaluation is not comparative. Sleep is bountiful, stress scarce. Competition is not what leads up to the campus gates, fills the space between them, or defines the aspirations in the world beyond. Mediocrity is not a dirty word. Common is not a dirty word. (Buildings are named for “common” people.) Leadership is a word to be questioned. Celebrity is avoided, prestige is laughable, service is a quiet ethos. 

At this university that exists, quiet rules. Everything is tenuous. Everyone is always wondering if they’re doing it right, really. They wonder it over and over and over again.

This university, it doubts profoundly.

It’s smart. It knows that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. It knows that knowing takes many shapes, most of them soft. It knows that the classroom is a political space like any other. It fosters interstitiality and intersubjectivity, learning over credentials. Hierarchies collapse. Protest is a form of education. This university, it knows that intelligence is only as good as it makes people more humane. Intelligence is not an object to be possessed. Intelligence is something everyone has. A heart, too: This is also what everyone recognizes that they have. They recognize that it beats and it bleeds. Oh, it bleeds. Mock if you want.

But at this university, there is no mockery. (Except maybe toward money or mean power.) At this university, the heart is cared for. It is prioritized. The ego is so uninteresting. That guy in precept finally knows this; at this university, he finally stops talking.

This university, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It doesn’t think too highly of itself. It rejects supremacy of any kind. (Except maybe the supremacy of the gentle.)

It respects the individual on their (yes, their) own terms but doesn’t enforce individuation. This university, it is collective. It doesn’t mistake diversity for equity. Criticism is done in collaboration; scholarship is a shared endeavor towards figuring a more just world. Discipline is not mistaken for education. Education is not mistaken for discipline. Elitism is not mistaken for truth. Truth is not mistaken for knowledge. Knowledge may still be power, but it’s power in the service of the good.

The good is rarely calculable. The good is rarely certain. The good is never complete.

What’s good? Poorer students don’t have to work to serve richer students just to attend this university. This university values people over things. It recognizes the interconnectedness of work, how some work allows for other work; the Honor Code rings its own irony when it says “my own work.” It recognizes its complicity in oppression, strives against that complicity. It strives for awakeness, awareness.

Because of the nature of its striving, it knows how to party. Its parties are not violent — not physically or sexually or emotionally or culturally. They do not cost millions of dollars. They do not produce piles of waste. They do not confuse consumption and joy, excess and memory. They consist simply of people breaking down the barriers they have constructed between themselves.

This university, it’s down with breakdown.

It’s human. It’s small. It’s humble. It’s warm. It deals in forgiveness and change. It recognizes that an institution is only a group of fragile individuals with inertia. Mortals trying to figure out a better way to be alive. It directs its inertia in the direction of justice.

Does injustice still survive here? Does pride flare up? Does loneliness still ooze in the ivy and sorrow still trickle through the old stones of the place? Of course. This university exists in the world. People are alive here. They still cannot entirely save each other.

Call this university what you will — “Big Rock Candy Mountain” or “La La Land,” Utopia or Hell. I’ll call it the compassionate university. (At least for now.)

Where does this university exist? Not here, certainly. It is clear that our University is not this university.

But it could be.

What do I want? I don’t know. Am I complaining? No, not really. Do I have policy proposals? Not precisely. Do I expect this writing to do any good? Not at all.

I only write as a reminder (to myself as much as anyone else), from the privilege of my lovely position in this lovely (if not loving) University, that the campus, as much as it is for the production and consolidation of knowledge and capital of all sorts, is also a site for radical, stupid imagination — an imagination that envisions a world that exists parallel to this one, just out of reach.

Kyle Berlin is a senior studying Spanish and Portuguese from Arroyo Grande, Calif. He can be reached at kmberlin@princeton.edu.

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