“Are you going to the James Baker lecture?” a guy sitting across the table from me recently asked his friends over dinner.
“Who’s James Baker?” one of the friends answered.
“You know – an important person who went here.”
“Oh. Screw that, man – no way I’m rushing off to some lecture after my three-hour lab.” Silence followed as people resumed eating.
That’s when I heard it: the distinct sound of apathy. It was in the way we chewed. Slowly and thoughtfully, like we had all the time in the world to savor the browned lettuce bits in our salads. There was no rush to go off to activities and no fevered conversation over current events. I wondered whether Princeton freshmen were more apathetic than they thought they would be when they first arrived. What happened to all the amazing accomplishments that had so impressed Janet Rapelye a year ago? How pervasive was this attitude? And by apathy I didn’t mean the disinterest that prevented us from storming Nassau Hall with demands for higher wages – that would be too ungentlemanly for Princeton students anyway – but the lack of visions of grandeur that played no small role in college admissions essays (ie. “Inventing a new way to diagnose cancer was a very gratifying experience that I hope a Princeton degree will help me replicate”). I decided to explore the matter further, but having fallen under the spell of apathy myself, it took me a few weeks.
Surprisingly, some of Princeton’s main draws are also its weaknesses. One of the most compelling reasons to go to Princeton is its wealth of opportunities. I still remember the halcyon days of April Hosting 2005 when Shirley Tilghman framed Princeton as a place where we could write a novel and major in mol bio at the same time. But for some, those precise opportunities are a source of anxiety. Those who do end up making decisions quickly often pick too many activities. At the Fall Activities Fair, I had trouble deciding between the IRC’s Jolly Ranchers and tantalizing male president and the College Democrats’ stickers and equally tantalizing female president. Though I ended up not choosing and signing up for all of them, I now barely glance at the emails even when they promise Chick-fil-A. While the College Democrats Facebook group has 364 members last time I checked, roughly 2.5 percent of them made an appearance at the last meeting. Academics are also a crutch. Though many people I spoke to confess that they’re not sure of where they’re going academically and are apathetic about academics, they say that they don’t commit to things to leave time to “do work.” For others, those all-nighters simply leave no room for putting up flyers and saving the world during the day. Even the best and the brightest can’t fulfill dual roles as Masters of the Universe by day and Red Bull addicts by night.
On Thursdays and Saturdays, however, many do feel like they are superheroes. So heroic that they can navigate the danger zone known as Prospect Avenue, battling bouncers and saving damsels in inebriation. “I do my work so I can go out later,” a frat boy boasted to me. Between doing work and partying on the weekends, there’s not much time for actual world-saving pursuits.
For those with the time and the desire to make a difference in the world, the oppressive need to be great also makes some the victims of inertia. After all – you can never suck at something you never do.
Others say that their reluctance to participate is their own brand of action. They’re “protesting” the blandness of student groups here. One friend said that the quality of The Prince quelled all her desire to be a journalist and to write on campus. “I’m not apathetic,” she said, “Just disillusioned. There’s a difference.” Freshman Sara Hastings says that “I’m not less interested in world-saving, just less aware of things that need to be saved.”
But maybe the above are all excuses for the one thing we can’t bring ourselves to admit – now that we’re coddled in the safety net of Princeton – it’s easier to be lazy.
Ultimately, apathy is an extension of senioritis, the state that we wallowed in during the last few months of high school. Not surprisingly, it has carried over to college. For once in four years – or more realistically, since the cradle – there’s no pressure of getting into an Ivy. It’s just so tempting to blend in and stop striving. We’re just basking in the glory of graduating from high school unscathed. Even now, many activities that people do are done to bolster college resumes. Why else do you think The Daily Princetonian has so many staffers?
This is not to say that the entire freshman class revels in “the sort of oblivion” that Horace Greeley compares to apathy. I’ve been dragged to many dance productions, plays, and a cappella performances of my artistically inclined friends, voted for my politically ambitious comrades and even read the articles of my peers who are narcissistic enough to opine. But this doesn’t make me somehow worthless compared to my more active friends. Indeed, there is room at this university for both performers and audiences.
This doesn’t mean that people who make up the audience now will forever be that way. Most of us do graduate, at least. In the meantime I may revert back to the state of oblivion.