Containment and Liberation

This is exactly the title of one of my favorite courses at Wake Forest — “Containment & Liberation” — a section of English 111 that I took in the Spring of 2013. After a year of work under the Thiel Fellowship, I returned to Wake Forest, and I spent many of my days wondering if I was being contained or liberated.

The course description reads as follows:

How does American society contain individuals and groups through its institutions, structures, and policies? What prisons — both literal and figurative — entrap Americans? In what senses and through what means is liberation possible?

My journey through college, I realized, was an exploration of this narrative, “Containment & Liberation”, and I think discovered a few metaphorical prisons along the way.

The Academics

Language and mathematics are the areas of study that I think are fundamentally important to college education, or education more generally. Language is not the alphabet (most of us go through college trapped in the Indo European alphabet), and mathematics is much more than proofs and equations.

Students can explore language through a variety of ways, such as foreign language learning, the dissection of political propaganda, or literature analysis. Additionally, most colleges offer students many avenues for learning mathematics and how math applies to our world. For example, biology is just chemistry, which is just physics, which is just math.

I believe that deeply exploring language and mathematics is critical to developing a holistic sense of place in the world. Courses that I took in Computer Science, English, and Linguistics are courses where I found a consistent liberation from my previous ways of thinking; they were courses where I mainly found the ability to express myself freely or develop new understanding. Though, I’m sure other students could report the same experience for a variety of disciplines.

As far as I can tell, the academics at nearly all top colleges are pretty similar. I am willing to bet that academics at Wake Forest are at most 2x better than competing institutions, with particularly high quality quality classroom experiences in the humanities and business courses, and much room for improvement in disciplines such as engineering. Thus, the content of a Wake Forest education (or any college) is hardly unique or distinguished.

For example, the Computer Science student at Wake Forest is —required— by the accrediting institution, IEEE, to complete the same set of courses as the Computer Science student at Harvard or University of Illinois or any other college that seeks to maintain its accreditation.

So, what is unique? The professors are unique. We pay (theoretically) for access to their attention and for their guidance through difficult textbooks or a variety of course materials. The difference between Wake Forest and other schools is that classes are small, and when a student screws up on a test, most professors will reach out directly to offer their assistance.

Social Life

This is one of those topics where one might say, “If you don’t have something good to say, then don’t say something at all.”, however I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this topic.

Greek Life currently dominates the social scene at Wake Forest. The institutional research statistics purport that only “50%” of students participate in Greek Life. These statistics are grossly manipulated because they are calculated during the Fall semester, during which the freshman class, 25% of the student body, is unable to participate.

Besides that, I have found that the pervasiveness of Greek organizations creates a social atmosphere that places prizes on the many identity divisions and exclusions on campus that they create, rather than a culture that promotes unity, as in “Proud to be a Demon Deacon!”.

Not to mention some fraternities cost upwards of $5,000 per semester, fraternity pledges suffer for a semester as servants (dare I say slave?) to their “college educated” “brothers”, and all of the untold stories of post traumatic stress unnecessarily caused in many young adults.

There are a variety of reasons for the popularity of fraternities at Wake, including a lack of extensive night life options in Winston-Salem, though Winston-Salem is improving as a college town. However, I did not select a college with the thought of joining a fraternity and I did not join one during my time at Wake. I don’t advise that anyone join based on the behavioral stereotypes that have been reinforced through my own experiences.

Housing

I think it goes without saying that the housing system is over-priced for the quality of the facilities. Wake Forest (and many other colleges) earns nearly $20,000 in rent for small dorm rooms (two roommates at $9,000 each, plus summer programs). I would be in favor of a system that prices rooms based on the quality of the building, location, and other amenities. Why not charge more for the new dorms versus the less popular buildings?

Despite the high cost of on campus college housing, I do believe this is one of the greatest selling points for higher education today: the residential college experience creates serendipity and proximity with peers and that’s hard to find in many other places.

Was it worth it?

“If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?”

It is questions like this that I think a humanities based education is supposed to help the human mind answer.

The short answer is that it depends on who you are asking. The simple answer that Martin Porter, a reader of The Guardian newspaper, once wrote:

The traditional answer is that it makes a sound but not a noise – noise being a subjective judgement.

My analogous question is, “If we drop off an 18-year old boy from New Jersey does it make a difference?” Yes, it makes a difference. More than anything else, I developed many relationships, challenged my mind in the classroom, and found a place to grow independently for the first time in my life. I was contained at Wake Forest and my mind was liberated.

120 credits, 4 years, thousands of hours of studying, friendships made, friendships lost, a mind expanded. And $250,000. (Ouch!)

To be sure, I feel a sense of sorrow to see one door close, especially because Wake is a place where I invested a lot of my time and developed strong relationships with many talented people. But still, I find myself filled with excitement to move past this stage of my life and redirect my energy towards building things once again.

Closing

I would like to congratulate my wonderful sisters Megan and Melanie who graduated from Loyola Maryland and Fairfield, respectively, this month. They are an inspiration to me and I am very proud of their efforts towards their accomplishments.

Lastly, I would thank my Mom, Sherry, and my Dad, John (Sr), who have supported and guided me throughout all of my life. They deserve much credit which I will always be unable to repay.

About The Author

John Marbach

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05 2015