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  • Andre Lamartin

My Side of Paradise

If you study only to gain an advantage over others, you only disadvantage yourself, for the only true purpose of education is to serve others by improving yourself. Only an educated mind guided by a sincere heart brings hope to where no light is found. The knowledge acquired as one will through compassion benefit all humankind. If we loved our neighbors as we do ourselves, no burden would be borne alone, and heartless silence would not be the wall separating ourselves. I would help you stand when you fell, and you would support me as well. When education becomes a mindless individual competition, minds are sharpened as blades and hearts hardened as shields, all in preparation for a war of all against all dictated not by compassion, but by a battle of wills, amid a raging war of greed. This is the story of what I valued most while studying for my undergraduate degree.

Upon my first arrival on campus, a lifelong dream came true. A new life unfolded before my eyes that fully visualized my every expectation of an earthly paradise. There were vast expanses of greenery and gardens so meticulously cared, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon dare not compare. Every building was an architectural work of art in itself, speaking of vast riches both financial and historical as well. For a brief moment, Princeton had been the capital of the fledgling United States, and the school´s main building served as the Congress were the country´s fate was sealed, and momentous decisions made. There was an art museum where even Picasso made his presence felt. The university also had the largest openstack library in the world, possessing a wealth of knowledge so vast, any comparison to the library of Alexandria is a detriment to Greek past. Only bicycles and pedestrians roamed around in an ecologically friendly environment, where tranquility was a reverberating sound, amid peaceful silence. The most beautiful university campus in America for reasons that my memory abound.

So was the country where the school was found. For most of my life, I had lived like an American expatriate abroad. Days spent studying in an American school; nights spent sleeping on Brazilian ground. A life split between two very different worlds, so many times feeling like a fool in search of freedom, where only a violent authoritarian legacy was found. But the university and the upscale neighboring city were also not on speaking terms. They seemed to ignore each other, but an unbreakable truce forged in mutual peace and silence never disturbed my life. No longer did I live in a world beset by police sirens. Walking down meticulously paved sidewalks, during night or day, was a newfound pleasure for someone accustomed to being suspicious of his own shadow, raised in a country where freedom remained a right unclaimed.

Citizens were respectful and attentive in a way unbeknownst to me, for my previous urban experience never spoke of much civility. Traffic was calm and cars respected the limits of speed, abiding by traffic lights even late night when unseen. The police officers that occasionally patrolled the streets maintained a vigilant presence, but remained courteous at all times, and attentively respectful towards me. For the first time, the presence of a protective democratic state was truly felt around me. Streets meticulously cared, sidewalks always free.

The fresh air of liberty, previously experienced only in urban dreams, also comprised my educational experience by revealing the myriad possibilities of a democratic world previously unseen. The traumatic ubiquitous sight of desperate impoverished families begging for spare change on the streets, was nowhere seen. Public transportation was cheap, accessible and always abided by precise time schedules, treating its users as citizens worthy of respect, whose right to come and go was enforced to full effect. Unfortunately, the locals did not grasp the true value of what they had, for future generations always tend to forget the struggles, and prices paid by the founding fathers and mothers of the past.

For the first time in my life, I had a room of my own. Having always shared my living space with my brother, this newfound freedom provided me with the individuality I had never previously known. Small newfound rights like being able to decorate my room with posters that inspired me, entertaining friends for private conversations, and being able to study quietly alone, these were all new experiences comprising my newfound sense of individuality. But my dorm room was not only a place for rest; discussions sprouting in the classroom continued as a lively educational quest, where my friends settled debates and answered questions not always covered in tests.

All students lived on university grounds, creating a lively community where classes never ended when professors so announced. They continued in the dorm room, in late night conversations about history, politics, science, religion and myriad different topics that immeasurably contributed to my education. Learning was a never-ending process not bound by the confines of a classroom or the limits of daylight. It continued in myriad libraries, it continued in friendly conversations and passionate nightly debates. It continued in public squares, dining halls and parks. If I had many Nobel laureates as professors, just as distinguished and intelligent were my classmates, more than friends and companions in arms, we were all teachers to one another.

My classmates all came from the most varied of backgrounds. Each year the school accepted approximately one thousand new students, and great care was spent recruiting promising young scholars from states and countries far and wide. Princeton had a need blind admission that fully covered the financial need of each student, judged only by his merits, accomplishments and demonstrated desire to succeed. Had it not been for the financial aid program, my dream stillborn would have been. Though my family contributed all it could spare, my scholarship covered the lion´s share of tuition, room, board, living expenses, books and medical care. The school even provided me with a job to lessen the burden on my family. They paid for my airfare home once a year, and even increased my financial aid when an economic crisis struck, adversely affecting the Brazilian exchange rate. In financial terms, the school did more for me in four years than my native country had done in my entire life´s history.

These measures were taken because the school had much to atone for. A past of elitism, which shunned students of African descent, women and the poor. An America unfounded on true equality because the words of the Declaration of Independence had one color, one gender, applying to a segment of privileged citizens so unbearably small. The times had changed and great social inclusion had, but the past also remained alive in ways so unspeakably sad. A minority of students were treated as legacies of the pasts, scions of families, alumni of the school for successive generations past. There was also the historical blight of Prospect Street. The avenue where so-called eating clubs were located, serving as dining halls and social houses for upperclassmen. Each had its own selective process and admission was important for the school´s social life revolved around these mansions. Networking was also a link, which bound its members, extending to life beyond school when favors were awarded in exchange of remembrances.

Never did I expect to encounter in the US the same social apartheid previously experienced at home, but much to my surprise that was not a tropical curse borne by Brazil alone. Though the school offered to fund my additional expenses, so that I too could join the elitist club that promised to enthrall all my senses, at great social penance I took the road less traveled by, compelled by my principles to abide. This involved living independently, and cooking for myself, distant from the parties and stupor that anaesthetized the academic pressures the student body knew so well.

This universal academic pressure was not simply to succeed, but primarily to compete. The grading system for most classes was based on a curve, where grades were awarded not in absolute, but in relative terms. The highest score became the highest mark, and all others distributed along a statistical curve, only degrading students into numbers later by the labor market observed. This created a mindless sense of competition, motivating students not simply to reach their potential, but to surpass that of their classmates. The ensuing psychological pressure explained much of the alcohol abuse occasionally observed, for every student, raised as the top of his class, was only now told that he was no longer the best. A future not paved with gold, if current academic performance did not surpass that of old. Though papers were in many classes assigned, and were surely my preferred form of evaluation, tests were also administered, but only twice during the semester. So much was studied, so much was read, how could it all be covered only in two different tests?

Grade inflation was a concern that many departments forced their professors not to spurn, striving to create a statistical distribution between students all equally underserving of this kind of dilution. With a grading system undermining true altruistic collaboration, it certainly remained questionable whether it served the interests of the nation. For the school´s motto was in the Nation´s service and in the service of all Nations. But true service eschews competition in favor of cooperation. No one lays down his life for his brother because he is trying to compete, he only so does when he has an ideal to reach, a mission to accomplish that cooperation so needs.

This disappointment with the grading system was not the only source of confusion. When first choosing courses, there were so many options had, that scarcely could I decide in which direction to head. Unfortunately, there were also requirements both departmental and university wide. They constrained my freedom, a straightjacket of rules I would much rather set aside. If knowledge is one word, why must it be divided? Unless understanding is whole, solutions remain broken and the people divided. Each one looking at a tiny spec, no one contemplating the whole. The interdisciplinary relationships potentially seen, all lost amid the smoke. The flames that consume society only burn stronger, unless present action contemplates the future. This requires vision that no single specialty can provide, for the primary requisite of strategy is having your entire battlefield in sight. A generalist like myself struggled to find his place, for the world belongs to specialists, each one confined in space.

Many were the choices, but indecision has only one definition. Public Policy and International Affairs was my major. No pursuit seemed nobler than solving the problems of the world. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs valued teamwork based on individual contributions, but it also had a very selective admissions process that I had to undergo. Working in small policy taskforces, we issued reports to international organizations and the American State Department, tackling real world problems that afflicted the poor. During my senior year, I won several thousand dollars in grants that enabled me to travel and conduct research that illuminated the human rights problems of a troubled distant land.

Upon my return, during the day of my graduation, from the vantage point of high ground, I looked back with desperation. What real purpose had my education served, I pensively asked myself. What had I truly learned having tasted both of Heaven and Hell? The lifestyle of the rich, the problems of the poor, both remained separate worlds unreconciled by amour. My mind told me to stay and pursue the road I was on, but the heart spoke louder: there was a woman at home. She called for my name, asking for my return, and torn was I between what was right and what was wrong. But the true purpose of an education is never on the day of graduation seen, only revealed by life´s future scenes. A professor advised me not to go back, to pursue graduate school and truly accomplish the task, set before me long ago when I first dared to ask: if a boy of humble origins could the problems of the world fully grasp. One must first stand before supporting others around him, but these were words that so dearly confounded me. Like most youngsters I knew best, and recklessly disregarded experienced advice that could have spared me from much future unrest.

Love had been forsaken for much too long; my education had a price not simply paid in treasure, but also in song. My stay in paradise had been short-lived, but also memorably long. There were more meaningful experiences than a few pages could tag along. One day I shall revisit these scenes of the past; but for the time being this remains a cursory account of a paradise once lived, though destined not to last. When the heart speaks louder, the mind sometimes binds the future to the past. Life then bargains for more than the heart dared to ask.

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