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The Way of Malaise: Exploring “Apathy” in the Oberlin College Student

by Sebastian Cruz



Nothing beats the disillusionment of finding out what the American dream really is. Or perhaps, what it really isn’t. That’s quite a lofty comparison to make when it comes to a sub-3,000 student liberal arts college, but for a good majority of its attendants, it may as well be that weighty. There’s a reason why Oberlin College is the sort of paragon of that liberal arts fantasy—a never-ending melting pot of creative types that forgo a more traditional college experience in order to dig deep into their experimental tendencies. Study the ethics of the music industry. Take up pottery. Sleep with a member of the same sex. What isn’t there to do here? I wanted that sort of community away from anything that may impinge upon it. So why do I, and so many others, feel so disconnected from the “dream”?

Illustration by Maia Hadler, Art Director

The liberal arts model also factors into why some are lost in the weeds some of the time. The model is a double-edged sword of freedom and pushing one’s own boundaries—yet indulging in those freedoms could make one feel directionless. Taking too many disparately-related classes that may be interesting in some capacity but altogether do not further one’s academic progress engenders antipathy towards one’s studies. Where is it all leading to? This friction and antipathy almost diminishes the focus taken towards academics. Of course most if not all students still try their best, but there’s little actual passion for what they’re learning. At best, it can feel like a neat detour, and at worst, a simple waste of time. When all you have left is the rest of your day, eating, studying, bumming around with friends until 1am—an ouroboros of routine that’s ultimately closer to real adult life. But faker. And smaller. And without some sense of “purpose.”

These structural issues are not the complete answer, however. Though the culture at Oberlin College is at the very least colorful, we must consider the locale. In many peoples’ minds, Oberlin is not a fun place to live in. To take the people out of the equation, Oberlin, both the town and the college in this instance, are predictably limited when it comes to what one can do when out on the town. If one wants to eat at the same restaurants, day in, day out then there’s hardly anyone to stop them—but many opt to avoid them in order to conserve funds, and vie for whichever campus-sponsored dining service is nearest. A local record store may be a neat pit-stop, yet when that’s the most interesting portion of the block, it sort of loses its sheen. And a lot of this, admittedly, could be chalked up to the percentage of students being big city expats— bigger cities than Oberlin, at least. In a world that they inhabited where each street branches into a smorgasbord of thrilling nights on the town, tripping the light fantastic across what is one long intersection is not many peoples’ idea of a sterling Saturday evening.

I am not too dissimilar from these expatriates. Oftentimes, I find myself dissatisfied with the lack of normal stimulation I normally achieve all the way back home just outside of Washington, D.C., so there’s this almost ubiquitous craving to be anywhere else, blocking ourselves from making the most of what we are given. And we are actually given kind of a lot. I’ve noticed that this feeling is especially common in incoming freshmen, and based on what I did (and didn’t) do in my semester and a half here, there’s a mass hesitance to participate, to go out of one’s way to do something. There are a multitude of extracurricular events and shows and showcases and nutcases, all presented for us to indulge in! Yet a prevailing mindset that I have is that I just need to “get by” until I have enough experience to become more involved. I need to be more deferential to the ones who are a year, two years, three years ahead of me because they understand everything better than I can.

Liberal arts colleges are meant to encourage branching out, and yet… some of us don’t. Some of us scoff at the notion, even. My friends and I are guilty of walking past the ‘Sco chalkboard and snorting at whatever theme they chose for a Tuesday night, but then complain about how this school lacks something to do, somewhere to go to.

This is a small example, however, it betrays an underlying feeling of paralysis, the feeling of not being enticed by anything, so, we automatically assume that it’s the fault of the organizers, or the school, or God, or whomever. As it happens, though, this “apathy” is more or less a substitute for the fear that is common amongst most new arrivals. It is the easiest affectation to put on because it requires the least amount of effort to do so. This is not really a damnation, because it’s an affectation that’s scarily easy to slip into when you’re not sure where to go.

We’re still figuring out how late the dining halls stay open and how to tell our roommates they’re eating too loudly. The acclimation to this strange, wonderful and yet still strange place comes slow—just like anywhere else. Some could attribute this to a (somewhat) post-COVID depression period, but that’s still not an affliction specific to Obies. Everyone says that we still have time to figure it out. And we still have time to figure it out. We just can’t believe it yet. Sometimes, or oftentimes, it’s best to stick to what we know now. And what we know bores us. Our friends are still our “college friends” because there’s a reticence to really be sure about anything, so the reticence begets reticence. Reticence to open up, or be oneself fully, however it manifests. So we close ourselves off for the sake of appearances, and at some point, it bleeds into even what we put true passion into.

The worst thing about this all is that it has to take time, and that’s just really fucking annoying sometimes. So it’s good to revel in this smallness. I pour my heart out in every acting audition on campus that I can find and every small role that I am given. At the beginning of this semester, I felt an urge to lock myself away from what I wanted to explore further. Ditch my radio staff position, skip the plays and hope for a prosperous next year, because I didn’t feel “ready” enough to do any of it. Who am I to say that? Who am I to decide how “good” I have to be to do something interesting? I am lost, I am a little bit confused and I am going to do it anyway. I recognize that this “apathy”, “malaise”, unnamed sense of dread, is hard to step out of. It’s not a destructive feeling so much as it is a cautionary feeling. And like any other feeling, it’s not preferable to become consumed by it. It’s not the only tool in your toolbox. You’ll know people better, you’ll know the clockwork of the school better, as well as the clockwork of yourself. It’s one big clock chock full of cogs. Sometimes it’s nice to be a cog in the machine for a bit.

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