Being and academia

Isn't university absurd?

Sometimes the menial things in life can be the most surreal. As university students, we engage in pretty regular routines. We go to class, sit in lectures with hundreds of other students, study for midterms and finals, and write lab reports and papers. All that good, traditional university stuff.

We think we do these things because there’s some kind of inherent purpose to them; they’re supposed to prepare us for a career, or help us learn fundamental truths about our world. These everyday realities of student life, however, may be a little more sinister — a little more absurd — than we might take them for.

A cheery band of philosophers known as the existentialists — whose members include Søren Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre — believe that human life, the act of living, is a completely arbitrary happenstance. For an existentialist, there is no such thing as destiny or fate, and there is no predetermined meaning to life. Instead, any individual is free to create their own meaning, and in doing so, resolve their burning desires for an inherent purpose to their lives.

Another existentialist, Albert Camus, had a very particular view on this lack of meaning. For him, the very act of seeking inherent value and meaning is completely irrational as the universe is void of any purpose. When a person attempts to find clarity and unity in our fundamentally chaotic and meaningless universe, they may encounter the Absurd: the realization that one cannot create meaning out of a meaningless world.

After an encounter with the Absurd, the realities of student life can be thrown into sharp relief. It seems absurd that your professor attempts to make a personal connection with you in a sea of 300 other faces. It seems absurd that you’re sitting in the library for 12 hours every day for two weeks, learning the content of a four-month course because you didn’t end up going to a single class. Hell, even the idea of attending class seems pretty damn pointless now.

Here’s to the irrational chaos of university life.

All of a sudden, the assumed meaning behind every menial thing collapses, leaving students washed up on a shore of confused, surreal despair. Everything they’ve worked for, their entire academic career, turned out to be worthless.

How is anyone supposed to respond to a realization like that? Camus said there are several solutions to resolving the tension between the desire for meaning and the empty void of the universe. The first is suicide, which Camus wholly disavowed; the second is a leap of faith towards an abstract, irrational belief in something beyond the Absurd which may or may not exist, such as religious or ideological dogma; the third is to accept the Absurd and live in spite of its existence.

Camus wished for people to accept the Absurd, but also to rebel against it by attempting to find beauty in life and create subjective, personal meaning for themselves. This doesn’t mean replacing the idea of the Absurd with one’s self-created meaning, but to hold the two in tandem, creating meaning from one’s own search for a greater truth.

So while it may seem pointless to sit in a lecture for several hours a week, is it really pointless when you have the chance to make meaningful interpersonal connections? Is it really pointless when you can lie down in the middle of Quad on a summer day, absorbing the sun’s gentle rays as you feel the stress evaporate from your body? Is it really pointless when you can go for drinks with your friends after a final and celebrate your struggles and achievements?

Perhaps we can find — or create — meaning in university life. That meaning may be the possibility of meeting the love of your life in a lecture; it may be reading really cool books or performing interesting experiments; it may be as simple as getting to leave your house every day and learn something new.

So here’s to the irrational chaos of university life. It may all seem ridiculous and pointless, but you have the freedom to instill it with whatever meaning you want. Embrace the weirdness and embrace the freedom; ultimately, no one can stop you.

Andrew McWhinney

Andrew McWhinney is a fifth-year English and political science combined honors student, as well as The Gateway's 2019-20 Editor-in-Chief. He was previously The Gateway's 2018-19 Opinion Editor. An aspiring journalist with too many opinions, he's a big fan of political theory, hip-hop, and being alive.

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