Building a Better Mac

By Tom Poulos

I just came from a session called “Building a Better Mac” in the Weyerhaeuser Ballroom where about 30 Macalester students came together to have an open conversation about what is wrong with our school’s culture. These types of informal discussion are pretty common at Mac, and over my three and some years here I’ve gotten pretty pessimistic about them. I mean, how much can we really discuss and criticize things? Why don’t we get off our high horses and do something about it? But I’ve got to say, after this particular session I was practically skipping my way across campus with excitement because of the future promise that this session held.Over Papa John’s and Shish (part of the reason I attended), groups of approximately five students came up with themes that captured negative aspects of Macalester culture. One of the themes discussed was “lifestyle homogeneity.” I recently heard someone say that individuals go to liberal arts schools and become the same. Rather than embrace each other’s differences in backgrounds and beliefs, we resort to superficialities such as fashion or political beliefs to find a source of comfort and identity in a context (college) that is chaotic and confusing for most 17-22 year olds. The problem is not that people form groups or even that people congregate over similarities-this is an inevitable social phenomenon. Rather, the problem is the exclusivity and judgmental disposition that often results that most of us find to be a common problem at our school.

We eventually combined our small groups into one large group and our goal became clear: generating higher degrees of unity and involvement and creating a greater feeling of acceptance that fosters open dialogue and diminishes self-consciousness and fear of judgment. Although this is ostensibly a quality that makes Mac unique, we found that some of the mechanisms that are meant to create an atmosphere of openness and acceptance actually do the exact opposite. For example, intense anxiety about sounding politically correct stifles the expression of certain opinions and perspectives. Similarly, emotional and irrational reactions to statements often villainize people and create a tacit form of dominance that one perspective, canon or group of people has over all others. Listening to and accepting others’ opinions-even if one finds them offensive-and responding to them in a respectful manner are the keys to constructive and informative dialogue.

Another problem mentioned in the session was the divisions within the student body and the tendency for groups to be insular; individuals assume things about others without actually talking to them and getting to know them. Basically, we believe that creating an open and non-judgmental atmosphere is both possible and paramount.

A final example I’ll give, and perhaps the most prominent of them all, is the overwhelming sense of liberalism at Mac that stifles individual political expression and oppresses conservative and moderate viewpoints. Diversity in political ideology would be nice, but even more important is that we make students whose political opinions are not of the majority feel comfortable expressing themselves. College is a place where individuals should challenge and adapt their own and others’ political opinions and emerge more learned individuals. We believe that in its current state, the Macalester community does not foster learning and growth to the best of its ability.

Other problems discussed were the stigmatization of athletes and the resulting athlete/non-athlete divide, the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the student body, the lack of respect for different life experiences and different future life goals (e.g. not everyone has had the opportunity to travel to exotic countries), lack of school spirit and general lack of comfort between students who may not know each other or are only somewhat familiar with each other.

These are, of course, idiosyncratic opinions of only a small percentage of the student body that come from their personal experiences and probably do not represent all Mac students. Different opinions and perspectives are welcomed and encouraged, which is why we want to invite everyone to come to the next session of “Building a Better Mac.” Look out for a email or a post in The Daily Piper in the next week or two to find out details. Attendees of the first session were told to bring a friend to the next meeting to increase attendance, but let’s make it even bigger.

The first step is recognizing that problems exist. The second step is finding solutions to these problems. Be a part of the solution. Come to the next meeting of “Building a Better Mac” and start changing the world around you.