CMU's culture of competitive complaining belittles us all

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I’m told it happens at every top-tier school; my friend at Harvard calls it “the suffering game.” I call it I-got-less-sleep-than-you-did. It’s a conversation we’ve all overheard (and maybe participated in once or twice): two students from different majors holding a spirited debate over whose life is more difficult. From outside, it’s laughable and pathetic, but from within, it’s life-or-death. Suddenly someone has questioned your right to be here, your right to respect yourself as an intellectual.

But if Albert Einstein, Gustave Flaubert, and Sir Laurence Olivier ever found themselves sitting around the same dinner table, I think the last thing they’d do is get into a pissing contest.

Why do we do it? Why must we incessantly belittle one another in order to make ourselves feel more secure? It’s as if we haven’t yet graduated from our high-school crises of validation. The difference is, now we ask “How much sleep did you get last night?” instead of “How did you do on the test?”

Apparently, any student who is able to find seven hours of sleep in his daily schedule isn’t trying hard enough, or isn’t mentally taxed enough by his course of study to warrant sleep deprivation.

As a society of young adults, we’re approaching a baffling reversal. Suddenly, good grades and mental health signify ignorance (for only a feeble intellect would choose a course of study in which it could flourish), and those haggard, mentally exhausted, perennially cranky scholars we all know are the true prodigies among us (for they’re studying the really “hard” stuff). That’s ridiculous.

Of course we all deserve the occasional opportunity to vent our stress to our friends, but there’s a difference between simply blowing off steam and a litany of self-serving complaints that alienate our colleagues. Too often, we seek validation, not commiseration; the subtext of “I'm just so tired!” is usually “Look how much harder I work than you.”

Even when we’re not directly challenged, we’re awfully industrious when it comes to bringing down those around us — how many times have you heard the cheap rhyme “H & Less Stress,” or that CFA stands for “Can’t Fucking Add,” or that you can’t take a dozen steps in Purnell without bumping into a three-digit SAT score, or that Tepper students are illiterate, or that computer science majors are allergic to sunlight and soap?

Enough already.

Accuse me of tooting Carnegie Mellon’s horn all you want, but I tend to think that our university is a little city of geniuses — that’s the reason I came here, honestly. No other school demonstrated to me such reverence for all the different forms of intelligence. It would be truly spectacular if we could take a tiny hint from our alma mater and start respecting one another for our diverse studies. Truly, there is no “easy” major at CMU, and if you look very closely, our intellectual vocations are not all that different across academic borders. On the surface, computer programming looks a whole lot different from Shakespeare, but aren’t they both just elegant lines of code?

Therein lies the key to a greater sense of harmony among students of different intellectual inclinations: finding common ground. Engineers should go to student art galleries; artists should attend science lectures. We can individually distinguish ourselves to no end, but we will (thankfully) never escape the scholarly heritage we all share. We should endeavor to make our minds like a good computer password: unassailable through diversity.

I like to describe Carnegie Mellon as a university with a multiple personality disorder. Where else do future captains of industry rub elbows with techno-wizards and Broadway’s up-and-coming A-list? Whose English department offered the nation’s first undergraduate degree in creative writing and, along with Yale, helped pioneer the American birth of literary and cultural studies? Ours.

Isn’t being worthy among brilliance the most legitimate validation?

Alma mater translates to “nourishing mother.” I think that’s appropriate. For it’s only natural for siblings to quibble with one another from time to time — but let’s not forget that families are forged and fed by unconditional love. I’m not suggesting that we all hold hands and have a singalong, just that we let go of our self-important prejudices and respect our colleagues, our intellectual siblings, for all their talent and hard work. Pushing others down is no way to raise yourself up. (Actually, by Newton’s Third Law of Motion, it is. But I’m an English major. You can’t expect me to know that.)