Op-Ed: Between two worlds

Jake Lorang, Senior

One of my favorite TV shows is “Downton Abbey.” One reason why I love this show so much is that it captures the ways in which values and constraints vary between the servants and the family who owns the estate. Both are limited in the way they are able to exert their will on the world into which they were born. Specialization and expertise are required for each role to function together efficiently. There is a value system that governs them all for reasons that are outside of themselves. There is a felt purpose that goes beyond the characters’ states of insecurity or suffering. There is not always justice. There is, however, a constant flow of shame and pride betwixt the interactions of “the help” and “the family.” Each character attempts to climb platforms to express their concerns during moments of crisis, and their voices are not always heard. Decisions are made that hurt people. But the show continues, in a similar manner to how class struggles have been going for hundreds of years.

Michael Conlin-Elsen wrote a Feature article for The Wire addressing the disparity of concerns between staff, faculty and the administration of Whitman College after the immediate COVID-19 crisis. This is my last semester at Whitman, and I have been fortunate enough to have the freedom to finish my course work under the tutelage of independent study. With that said, I can adequately sum up my “Whitman experience” as being between two worlds. Although for the sake of time and my uncertainty that my experiences will be undervalued, I do not have the space to express all of the reasons why that is true. The reason why this is important is because it provides me a certain level of objectivity and the freedom to observe without feeling obliged to accommodate a particular point of view. Except for one. It is difficult for me to relate to the machinery of administrative policy. The coldness, for me, has been felt since the moment I heard the words “your purpose here is to learn,” which my Gen X brain translates to mean “know your place.”

The contrast between this sentiment and faculty’s encouragement to think critically and challenge status quo thinking both institutionally and socially, leaves a student wondering who to trust and how far their voice will carry before it is snuffed. We are caught in a maelstrom of what I have dubbed “The Whitman Pace.” Our professors lead us by example, approaching each challenge methodically and with a smile, but every once in a while we might glimpse a troubling insight behind the administrative curtain that divides us. They are shouldering great responsibilities. Sometimes, that can make our suffering seem piddly in comparison but — and it has taken me a considerable amount of painfully developed resilience to make this conclusion —  no one has the right to measure someone else’s suffering.

There is no strata that adequately captures and compares individual voices. Outliers especially are still valid. They may live in the margins and possess only a low level of significance to statisticians, but their stories tell more than current methodologies of scientific inquiry can describe. My sociological studies have allowed me the, perhaps unusual, opportunity to explore the disparity between homogenized behavioral expectations and the inevitable inequality that results from institutional requirements. I have studied enough to know, with a high level of certainty, that I am not alone in the way I understand this structure to function. But, to live between two worlds is, in itself, very isolating. And that is how this system seems to function!

If you think you can stop a train by throwing yourself onto the tracks, you are gravely mistaken. If you believe that the conductor will see you and your appeal to the higher nature of his faculties, there may be only a chance he will hit the brakes. More likely, he does not know the bridge is out. It is up to you to stop the train. Or fix the bridge. But do not be deceived. The train will not record your death or mourn the loss. It is a machine designed to move forward. It doesn’t matter whose land the tracks were placed on, or who put them there, or who benefits from the delivery. There are people in the caboose, and they have paid to go to a destination. Those who haven’t paid are indebted to silence.

But… they are free to order a martini. I’ll take an extra dry Tito’s with a twist, please. Oh! You have calamari? What am I reading? Oh, it’s “The Sea Around Us” by Rachel Carson. She’s such a boss!