Individualism in the University

The importance of collaboration with our peers & technology’s impact

At a university such as Notre Dame the impact of technology is undeniable. Everywhere you look students are clutching their phones like precious gold bars, jamming out to music on the way to class, hunched over their laptops with eyes blinking in the blue glow, and striking a difficult pose at various iconic locations on campus for their Instagram. Almost everyone partakes in this –I often find myself looking at my phone for no other reason than boredom or the urge to take pictures of everything. In doing so, I miss the moment and ignore those around me.

I am not, however, advocating for the removal of technology. Last spring, I attended a conference for university students in Rome. The keynote speaker, Jose Luis Orihuela, a professor at the University of Navarra in Spain, discussed the ramifications of technology in his talk “What type of legacy are we leaving in a mobile culture?” He argued that technology is neither inherently good nor bad, but it is not neutral either. Technology has the capacity to create a positive impact, but as with anything, it can control us and become an addiction rather than a means for the good. His simply stated words ring true and keep reminding me that technology presents a unique challenge to our modern society.

Professor Orihuela also spoke on the impact technology has on communication. Recently his talk has led to me ask: are we at a disadvantage socially and intellectually due to technology? A UCLA research study found that too much screen time for young children worsens their ability to recognize emotions in other’s faces and social cues (Summers, “Kids and screen time: what does the research say”). Moreover, the accessibility of research through online databases is incredible and does facilitate research. But this can also mean students do not take the time to think something over before looking up the “answer” on Google. I wonder if this “knowledge” at our fingertips has usurped genuine intellectual curiosity.

The negative effects of social media and Netflix on youth are striking. This past summer I worked as a counselor for middle school girls in downtown Chicago. Every day I ate lunch with the girls and I noticed that they found it difficult to maintain any sort of conversation (they weren’t allowed to use their phones all day). Now this can be explained in part because of different personality types, but once I met with the girls one-on-one for advising, several told me of instances of cyberbullying, how their parents took away their phones because of overuse, and the hours they spent on Netflix. I was then struck by the fact that all these “activities” are solitary.

We may be communicating via technology, but the absence of in-person presence takes a toll on us as individuals. The girls who did not have any social media had few insecurities and intentionally made time for their friends—in person. These girls did not need as much help forming friendships.

Likewise, on the university level, the danger of isolating oneself in one’s studies is prevalent. At what other time in our lives will we be surrounded by people of the same age, taking classes and grappling with life’s big questions? Collaboration among our peers must be key for a truly enriching education. As students we should ask ourselves why technology has the impact it does, socially and intellectually, and what we should do about it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, presents the dangers of excessive individualism and complacency for 19th century Americans. He describes the state of citizens who exist in a “soft” despotic state:

“Each of them, withdrawn to the side, has virtually nothing to do with the fate of all the others: his children and his particular friends form for him all of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is next to them and does not sense them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone and if a family still remains to him, one can at least say that he no longer has a fatherland” (Volume II, Part IV Chapter 6).

This soft despotic state can occur if citizens allow the government to provide for all their pleasures and thus become a “herd of timid and industrious animals, whose shepherd is the government” (Vol. II, Part IV, Ch. 6).

Tocqueville’s words can extend to intellectual life at a university and technology’s role there. In a place such as Notre Dame, we are surrounded by students and professors engaging in diverse fields of study. For highly achieving students, there can be a danger of becoming enclosed in our studies and “bubble” of interests. We can end up just propelling ourselves through our studies without stopping to look around us at the other thousands also studying here. Once routine and business take hold of our schedules, we can leave little room for long discussions over coffee or taking the time to talk with a professor about something that sparked our interest in or outside of class.

Many times when I sit down to write an essay or research paper I am frustrated by my lack of ability to unearth a completely new, unique, and groundbreaking interpretation or thought. I complain that everything worthwhile has already been explored, already talked about. Then I realize that of course I may not write a completely unique paper, but that does not mean the essay loses its value. Far from it. In academics we should not be such individualistic intellectuals—only relying on our own observations. There is so much to learn from others, and the intersection of ideas in place like Notre Dame is priceless.

How then does our reliance on technology interact with collaboration at a university? Technology secures many advantages for our modern society, from the quality of life to scientific breakthroughs. Yet technology should not interfere with our ability to truly engage with others. Technology should be the bridge to connect us with our peers, not the force that traps us on an island of self.

Sarah Ortiz is a junior studying the Program of Liberal Studies and classics, and living in Lewis Hall. She loves discussing life/and or literature over coffee, so feel free to contact her at

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