Hating Swarthmore, and loving it

I’m from Philadelphia. As a rule, Philadelphians hate Philadelphia. We hate that SEPTA buses always smell faintly of piss and hopelessness. We hate that our public schools are approaching Dickensian levels of dysfunction. We hate that our most iconic tourist attractions are a cracked bell that doesn’t ring right and a statue of a fictional boxer. We hate our politicians, our sports teams, Comcast, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the School Reform Commission, Wilson Goode, South Philadelphians who save their parking spots with traffic cones, public masturbators, the “With Love, Philadelphia” tourism campaign; really we hate pretty much the whole damned city.

Yet Philadelphians are proud, aggressively, even rudely so. God help the out-of-towner who corrects our pronunciation of “wudder ice” or points out that “water ice,” even correctly pronounced, is a stupid name. Philadelphia pride largely originates from common incredulity: we know that this city should not work, and yet it does. Every day in which the earth does not swallow it up is a sort of miracle. When we hear talk about how the city’s up-and-coming, how it has a future as a Manhattan-lite metropolis, we can’t help but feel like we’re somehow swindling the world. To misquote Sarah Palin, you can put lipstick on a cheese steak, but it’s still a cheese steak.

As is the case with most identities I claim, I’m not much of a Philadelphian. I say “wadder” instead of “wudder”; I went to high school on the Main Line; I grew up hating cheese steaks and the mummers. The gritty, no-nonsense, borderline self-loathing tough Philadelphian persona I’ve assumed in the last two paragraphs is largely an affectation. Yet, inauthentic as it may be, right now my understanding of the love-hate relationship between Philadelphian and Philadelphia is crucial to my thinking through of another contentious relationship: the one between Swattie and Swarthmore.

On the surface, Swarthmore and Philadelphia don’t seem to have much in common. The college would make a good stand-in for Arcadia: richly green, sun-loved, only lightly speckled with the traces of civilization; Philadelphia, on the other hand, is Philadelphia. But if we look beyond the obvious differences—Swarthmore’s endowed billions vs. Philadelphia’s perpetual budget crisis, our insufficient enthusiasm for Yuengling—we see that there’s a fundamental similarity: in the same way that all Philadelphians hate Philadelphia, we at Swarthmore all hate the college.

Swatties’ loathing of Swarthmore can take many forms. My own loathing focuses on a few points: our cultivation of stress as a point of pride, our constant controversy mongering, and the myopic self-righteousness of our political climate. These are far from the only discontents I feel towards the college, nor are my discontents universal. What is universal among Swarthmore students, or nearly so, is a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are done here. Since the end of the first semester of my freshman year, I don’t think I’ve gone a day on this campus without either hearing or expressing a complaint about some collegiate injustice, from the major (circa 2013: our shamefully insufficient response to campus sexual assault) to the incredibly petty (today: oh no, I didn’t show up in time to vote for commencement speaker, the senior class officers must have fixed the election, oh woe is me). Perhaps this has more to do with the student body than the college itself: we tend to be the type of people who think it’s their sacred duty to expose the unfairness of the world in new and interesting ways. But whatever its source, this displeasure is part of the core of our idea of what makes a Swathmore student.

It’s not that I don’t love the college. I am immensely grateful to have spent the last four years here. I love this place for kicking my ass, for challenging me to be a better student, a better thinker, a better person. I care deeply about the people I’ve met here, and genuinely believe that we constitute a worthwhile community—a community that at times threatens to destroy itself from the inside, but a community nonetheless. The changes that Swarthmore has wrought on my character are indelible and incalculable. But my love of Swarthmore isn’t separable from my dissatisfaction with it. The love doesn’t cancel out the dissatisfaction; it accentuates it. I can’t conceive of Swarthmore as a place of unbridled happiness. Indeed, I don’t know if I could believe in it if it wasn’t a deeply flawed place. Swarthmore teaches us to be critical; if we couldn’t turn that critical faculty back on our own home, could we really trust it?

My aim here isn’t to valorize this relationship. Love mixed with hate isn’t sexy. Most of the time, it’s abusive. But as I prepare to leave this place, this failed utopia, I can’t help but acknowledge that my feelings towards it are mired in contradiction, contradiction that I’ll never fully settle. What’s more Swattie than that?

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