An open letter to incoming freshmen about self-care and Cooper politics from School of Art transfer student Jakob Biernat.

Two Educations for the Price of None

Originally published in May 2013

It is often written that the crisis and scandal of Cooper Union is a crystallization of a national and global struggle in higher education, most recently in ArtInfo’s article by Ben Davis:

The attack on education in our era of austerity is a nationwide — rather, worldwide — phenomena. Without changing the larger picture, the same forces that are affecting institutions of higher learning everywhere are going to continue to press Cooper. Turning the tide of policy towards respecting the value of education as a public good is the only real sustainable solution for everyone. Conversely, accepting the inevitability of the situation at Cooper without anger only helps further set the limits of what is “realistic” to expect from the system — which right now isn’t working very well, saddling young people with ever-greater levels of debt in return for pursuing their dreams. One way or another, Cooper Union will end up being a symbol — either of an ideal to be reached for, or of the terrible present-day wisdom that says that ideals only matter for those who can pay.

I firmly believe this to be the case. If you’ve ever yearned to be an actor in history rather than just a member of its audience, there is hardly a more exhilarating place to be as a college student than here at Cooper, here in a small, swiftly-beating heart of something much larger and more long lasting than each of our singular educations, whatever that means for each of us. This is an opportunity to act, to do excellent things, to serve and protect a tremendously worthy and fragile ideal.

It is also a responsibility…you all know you’ve been given an amazing gift, an unbelievable chance. Your lives will be changed forever, I guarantee it.

Cooper’s gift must be repaid in citizenship, in contribution to our small community. It will be difficult, extraordinarily so, to juggle your work and your participation in the politics of the school and your personal growth, but you have to try.

By responsibility and citizenship, I mean a responsibility to try to confront that anxiety head-on rather than avoiding it, to do the research, to look at the history of the school and particularly the history of the last two years, the problems facing the school, the divisions, the range of possible solutions, the actions, the words, the politics, all of it.

A lot will be asked from you: good faith to your fellow classmates, who are just as much your teachers as anyone else will be; good faith to yourself and your work. You will make until you can’t make any more. Then you’ll make more. Get sleep, try to eat well. You’ll need it to get used to sleepless nights and constant stretching of your capabilities. You’ll be taken apart, laid bare, and empowered to build again with new clarity. Your classrooms will take the diffuse light of you and your fellow students and refocus it into something shockingly coherent, collectively, a light that lets you see further into your work and into each other as a community of learners, a light that makes the paths we all must take more visible.

This is an urgent moment, a historic moment, but please pay attention to yourself as well. Your responsibility is not to act rashly, but rather to develop your understanding, to be critical, to pay attention deeply. Read. Think. Reflect. But whatever you do, don’t ignore things. Be a member of the school, in all the ways that the factors of physical location (little scraps of land in the deep of Manhattan) and situation (ideological, vast, complex, widely implicating) and people (dedicated, remarkable, nourishing, challenging, sometimes adversarial, healing, empowering) exist and create a school. Whatever results of the attention I ask that you pay — whether or not you agree with x, y, or z — what is essential is that you have thought about things. Don’t waste this chance.