Over the past year or so, Queen’s has been rocked by several student deaths.
Anyone who wants to know about these individual cases can look them up online. I’m not going to rehash them or go into detail about them.
Yet one thing I do want to discuss here is the collective response on people’s part towards these deaths. As an alumnus, I know I can speak with pretty reasonable authority that none of these proposed solutions – a report in the Star about a ‘culture of drinking’ or Principal Woolf writing an article expressing his very real concern – have any bearing on the reality of the situation at Queen’s (or anywhere else for that matter).
They’re the rhetorical equivalent of handwringing, an inability to grasp the central conceit of a world that doesn’t make sense for a lot of people anymore.
Here’s the stark reality, Queen’s: our undergraduates are completely and totally lost.
They’re facing the zero-sum game of dwindling job opportunities, fighting tooth and nail for every conceivable advantage in a world that demands you be perfect. It’s a dangerous mix of both personal and existential anxiety these kids are facing; whether people want to admit it or not, the perception of Failure Is No Longer An Option rings ever louder at a place like Queen’s.
And Queen’s hasn’t done anything to stop this.
Let’s talk about some of the basic facts we know about a university like Queen’s – hardly alone in this problem of student deaths.
Anyone that’s ever gone to a university like Queen’s knows two things: it’s a school with a lot of intelligent people in it and it’s also a brutally competitive place. From the moment you arrive, any student worth their salt learns a very valuable lesson very quickly: as much as you may fit in with a certain crowd of people (or not), you’re ultimately laying down the groundwork for an academic future that’s going to feature a lot of folks vying for similar goals. In other words, welcome to the quiet battlefield of academia. Those folks that kicked ass academically in the grade-inflated world that is modern high school? Well guess what kids, you’re about to meet a legion of them.
That’s some intimidating stuff. And anyone who doesn’t admit to it is lying.
This competitive landscape isn’t just some kind of abstract idea, either. It’s encouraged in direct and indirect ways. This includes everything from the ill-gotten comparisons of your first painfully mediocre Philosophy essay – what do you mean I got a B-? The fuck? – to borrowing lab notes to, as numerous anecdotes suggest, Life Science students sabotaging other students’ lab reports. This happened more than once during my time at Queen’s.
The upshot of the whole thing is the unspoken belief you’re not just competing against yourself, but other people. This leads to pressure, anxiety, stress and anything else that can be treated with drugs that end in the suffix ‘pam.’
Of course, you’d also be lying to yourself to suggest that students today are comparably weak or feeble-minded to the students of my day. People are people, no matter what time and place they live in. Queen’s students are a sharp bunch, no matter what year or degree they’re in.
The difference is how people cope with the stresses they’re facing and what kinds of options are available to them to feel better.
It all comes full circle into what’s gone on at Queen’s over the past several years. The narrative is tying together now, reaching larger spaces in both geography and the damaged collective psyche of Queen’s. The outrage over a street party that went too far, the intergenerational warfare that’s becoming part and parcel of an eviscerated alumni experience, the binge drinking culture that’s gone one step closer to outright nihilism – it’s starting to show us what we’ve denied for a long time.
The proverbial canary in the cultural coalmine – our youth – are facing a future that’s being shaped by forces that no longer give a damn about them. It’s a prospect that speaks to a deep crisis in our universities, places that seem just as lost as our undergraduates in what their purpose in a hostile world is.
It’s a reality Queen’s must wake up to. As much as gestures like Queen’s Loves U – however seemingly disingenuous aspects of it may be in an ultra-competitive environment like Queen’s – mean well, Queen’s must change course.
Our world is not a happy place right now. Queen’s, dealing with some of the worst financial pressures it has ever faced, is being forced into a corner. Our governments have given up on long-term goals, preferring to spend electoral terms holding on for dear life.
It’s enough to make some of our youth, raised in the backdrop of terrorism, economic crisis and increasing financial pressures, crack under the pressure. These kids are waking up to the daunting belief that no matter what they do, no matter how hard they work, it may not make a difference. After years of following the rules, playing by the expectations our vaunted captains of industry and politicians hand down, they’re starting to see how so much of it is certifiable, Grade-AAA bullshit. It really is every man for themselves.
These kids – born into wealth but coming of age in rags – were raised in a time when perfect was the only option, having no release with a culture of helicopter parenting and a surveillance state run amok. They’ve been trained not to learn, but to find ways to beat the system. And the system’s utter failure to provide any of us with a real future is destroying our youth.
I’m also willing to admit this isn’t just Queen’s fault. These kids have been raised to believe they’re perfect, unable to cope with the prospect of real failure. Once it happens, it’s like a personal cataclysm. The self-esteem movement that’s become a staple of parenting has done irreparable harm to our youth, mistaking the belief that ‘everyone’s special’ is the same as success in the real world.
Yet this is where Queen’s must realize it has collectively failed as an institution.
For decades, Queen’s has taken the road well-traveled when it comes to dominant ideologies of the day. It didn’t earn the nickname ‘a hotbed of social rest’ as a compliment to the place’s sense of activism or what not.
Yet it is time for Queen’s to change course.
As an alumnus, I can see with full clarity in my personal rear view what a place like Queen’s can do to people: as time goes on, you absorb the direct and indirect lessons of living there.
Queen’s must stop riding the coattails of a failed belief in the so-called freedom of neo-liberalism. It must stand up with conviction, passion and grace that you can have a world that gives its students opportunity without selling out to the highest bidder. It must instill in its students that no matter what happens in our tense, aggressive world, Queen’s will always stand up for its students. It will not stand pat and let fear dominate the agenda. It will publicly admit the school’s administration is stretched too thin, forcing it to become reactive than proactive.
Yet most of all: it will make it crystal clear that the people of Queen’s are what makes it great. It will not allow its students to battle each other in a vicious cycle of competition anymore. It will stand as a beacon of light in an intellectual sea of darkness that North America is quickly becoming.
I love Queen’s. I’ve had my issues with the place over the years. I’m saying these things because, as an alumnus, I’m not going to stand around and assume the status quo is okay anymore. It’s not. Queen’s can’t either.
Further, as an alumnus, I won’t donate to Queen’s until the university stops looking at the symptoms of this spiritual crisis and addressing the real issue: our youth feel lost. They need more than just hugs and token gestures. We need to talk about this.
They need you, Queen’s.