We'll Always Have Lowell
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.
Truth be told, randomizing student groups would have more of an effect on who I meet than re-randomizing Houses. Encouraging interconcentration dinners, a Math-VES tea, courses team-taught by professors from different disciplines, expanding the Core to include a distribution requirement--this is where the real cross-fertilization could come.
My favorite scene in Casablanca comes towards the middle, where a group of German soldiers have begun singing the German national anthem in Rick's caf, a supposedly "neutral" zone, much to the chagrin of the French expatriates in the room. In a brilliantly heroic Hollywood move the movie's hero stands up suddenly and leads the band--who had been standing quietly by--in an equally passionate version of the French national anthem, which has all the French in the room in tears. For all its daring, this is the most carefully choreographed moment in the film.
True pluralism is not easy. It has been wonderful over the past three years to meet--many times by accident--other people with the same passions, the same professed interests and the same favorite poets, and many more people with radically different views. How do we come to know each other as people? I doubt the way to accomplish this is to make blocking groups smaller, but I don't think making them larger would help either. Our social and political diversity cannot be so entirely segregated from our intellectual diversity. As long as disciplines encourage intellectual insularity, social pluralism--especially in an academic setting--will be implicitly discouraged.
Waiting for a friend during shopping period I overheard two strangers having a conversation about Wittgenstein, culture and the color green and introduced myself. They were not my year and did not live in my House, work on my organizations or know my blockmates. And yet it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Maryanthe E. Malliaris '01 is a mathematics concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.