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Best Lecture I Heard While at Columbia
John Rolston, Alum
School of Engineering and Applied Science 2003

"Define 'American,'" Jai said. "Why do many of you call yourselves 'American' and not something else?" A few people tried the easy way out of tautology: "A citizen of the U.S. is an American." But that clearly wasn’t a real answer. "Someone who was born in the U.S.," another student tried. "But what about me?" came a reply. "I’m naturalized and I call myself American."

The class of twenty, a recitation session for Eastern Civilization I, was stumped. Despite each of us having a deeply-rooted foundational identification with our nationalities, none of us could state where or when this belief's seed was cast. Jai, the recitation's leader, carried on with other questions. Why do we have national identities at all? Why don't we see ourselves as merely residents of a country, rather than the more largely-defined citizens we claim ourselves to be? Indeed, why is there a difference between resident and citizen at all?

The truth is, most of us had never bothered to ask such questions. We'd grown up in our respective countries and, through a rather miraculous feat of pattern recognition and abstraction, something that would set Piaget's head spinning, we'd independently constructed an unarticulated consensus for what "American," "Chinese," and "citizen" meant. Moreover, there was no real a priori reason we did so. These concepts were completely formed through our interactions with our respective cultures.

Needless to say, my mind was blown. This one lecture, this one idea, utterly changed the way I looked at everything around me. Not just the concept of citizen, but that why it wound up the way it wound up was now an open question. It was liberating and wonderful, and it almost leads me to not mind paying my student loans at the end of each month.

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