In the opening reels of Casablanca, the black-and-white camera pans an urgent city: refugees, politicians and aspirants of all kinds, characters who have reached Morocco by hook or by crook with the eventual goal of making it big in the free world. There are people of all shapes and sizes, accents, backgrounds, ambitions, with little in common except the fact of place, an appreciation of circumstance and a fair amount of airbrushing.
And yet this scene is strangely familiar to any modern-day college student. The principles of randomization, applied to a college population, are not so different from the dynamics observed among those Hollywood refugees. We're stuck in an era of different urgencies, different wardrobes and different enemies, but it's no less critical for that. We've come from the world over and may never see each other again, but there is something about this watering hole that's good for all of our journeys.
Like Casablanca, we all have our clubs, our backgrounds, our lines of allegiance. Instead of Rick's, we have Tommy's; instead of Sam, a jukebox. Can we all get along? The answer that has been suggested, implemented and debated most hotly is randomization: Mix people up enough and they'll be forced to abandon their stolid alliances and acknowledge common ground.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, the randomization discussed has been entirely residential. While few would argue that the past years of randomization in the Houses have significantly reorganized college life, we have left out the most important part of the story: not the common ground we will discover, but the common ground we already have.
A college community is dependent on intellectual cross-fertilization. The politicking of social groups and the insularity that most upperclassmen have comfortably settled into is as much a factor of major as it is a factor of blocking groups and residence. The real solidarity of attitudes, the taking-for-granted, the place where questions cease to be asked cannot be entirely divorced from the academic context.
By junior year, I'm surprised at how easy the stereotyping has become. Within minutes of meeting someone, I can make a fairly good guess as to their major. There is a certain way that lit majors, CS majors, math majors, gov majors, English majors think--or, perhaps I should say, don't think. The quickest way to guess someone's major is to see what they take for granted.
We are part of an incredible intellectual community, and the life and breath of the University are as inseparable from its academic bent as the actions of the expatriates in Casablanca are from the war. Whether we are for or against academia, politics or the Free French, the stage has been set. Randomizing Houses with the goal of creating "a microcosm of the Harvard community" within each building is an admirable goal, but it is far from the whole story.
Again and again, the problem is mis-focused on the House community. I was surprised to find, after the close (sometimes a little too close) entryway scene during my first year, that no one in my sophomore entryway really met each other. Previous friends stayed friends, and friendships made elsewhere carried over; but rarely did entryway relationships move beyond the kind hello or a door-holding during moving season. The necessary, disoriented openness of Annenberg--meals as a time to introduce oneself--is rarely duplicated in the Houses.