If you support Harvard-style housing, you are being inconsiderate in effect, if not in intent.
The winners of Harvard-style housing are those who need it least. They are those legions of extroverts, those processed hordes, who, told to find a group of 7 friends, dutifully did. Perched atop their social heap, no doubt nested in some extra-curricular or another, they patiently await their next fix.
These are Harvard’s winners, and they find and form communities in many places—extracurriculars, sports and social clubs come to mind. Unlike Harvard, they know that real communities don’t just happen with eight people.
The nomadic army of losers, on the other hand, don’t do this. Look out for these reserved introverts, who, while failing to obsess over other human beings, have been swindled out of a community.
This class-struggle, if you will, is why Harvard ranks 27th out 31 elite schools in student satisfaction according to a 2005 Consortium on Financing Higher Education poll (COFHE). Two administration sources—anonymous because they are supposed to pretend it doesn’t exist—say that Yale and Princeton do "considerably" better than Harvard in the poll, which was conducted in secret and leaked to the press. Our worst features were "a "sense of community" and social life"—that oxymoron!
So what do Yale and Princeton have that we don’t? Maybe it’s better architecture, or just inherently happier students. Or maybe—just maybe—it’s the newness of Jersey and Haven that keeps them smiling. But somehow I doubt it.
Rather, I suspect it’s pre-assigned housing. In Princeton’s case, for 2 years. In Yale’s case four years straight. This is only one difference but also the largest and most obvious one.
But here’s the situation: The current winners don’t want a revolution because they profited splendidly under the old regime. The current losers, well they’re just too depressed to talk.
The problem is incentives. When freshmen arrive, they are alienated and fearful. Then more than ever, they make an attempt for community. The point is not that freshmen don’t form real communities—some clearly do. The point is that this happens despite the system, not because of it.
The trouble with the current system is that it doesn’t give incentives to foster communities beyond eight people; it emphasizes quantity instead of quality. A freshman is given no guidance as to whom he should spend time with, so he disperses time thinly around his non-blocking friends.
Regular scenario: from his blockmates, said freshman knows about 2-3 of them well, and will cling to these like flotsam. With the rest he hopes merely to keep peace. He arrives next year not to form new friends in the House, but desperately hoping he has enough outside it.
But eight people are not enough for a real community. (Eight people! Our houses are veritable kibbutzim). Yet there is little incentive to make friends in the House because the excitement is gone, and people are trying other things. To get involved in House life is to try to rescue a sinking ship.
Under pre-assignment, you’ll have rooming, not blocking. Instead of choosing 7 blockmates from 1600 people, you’ll be choosing 2-3 roommates from 120-180 students. Not only is this a significant number—most people don’t have more than 200 facebook.com friends—it is also manageable; and so people can spend more time when choosing their blockmates.
More importantly, pre-assigned housing creates the strongest incentive yet for community. It tells freshmen: get to know your dorm-mates because you will be with them for 4 years. It’s ready-made; there’s no need to scour.
This is why people gabber about final clubs all the time. It’s not actually about the money, status, or the oppression (oh the women!) Rather, it’s largely about the sense of community—to be a part of something larger than themselves—smaller than the evangelical movement and larger than the 8-person blocking group.
It’s also the same reason that people are over-involved in extra-curriculars, and the same reason why the College can be said to have a "mental health crisis."
Connect the dots. Community is necessary, and desired. Right now most people are working far too hard to get it, and many aren’t. The College must incentivize communities. Most of us are waiting.
Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.