I was reminded of the potential of social space while studying at Cambridge University, alma mater of our own John Harvard. Three nights in, our professor invited the new students for drinks at the college pub. As we listened to him explain British crown loyalty, students played pool, bought each other drinks, and admired one man who had decided to wear a brassiere on his head. My first reaction was simply that this was a very bizarre juxtaposition of people in an enclosed space.
Then I began to appreciate the combination. When I asked students how they’d met, their most common response was something like “well, erm, I dunno, I guess I hang out in the pub, and so does she.” There didn’t have to be much else in common—no club, extracurricular, ethnicity, or assigned place of residence—just a common space to go at night.
There have been many campaigns for more inclusive social space on Harvard’s campus. Most have centered their arguments on serious moral issues, claiming that off-campus social spaces (read: final clubs) are havens for sexual assault and discriminate explicitly based on gender and often implicitly in other ways. But there are real and important benefits to creating alternative social spaces, even leaving aside the oft-addressed and weightier issues of rape and class-consciousness. A truly alternative social space would provide not just a safer and more inclusive place for drinking, dancing, and "hooking up", but it would also create an intersection of people and ideas.
This kind of environment is of particular relevance in an academic environment like Harvard, but it can exist just about anywhere. This summer, while filmmaking in rural Ghana, my colleagues and I met a farmer who had created his own center for discussion. Above a small shelter he built, Nana Owusu Achgampong hung a sign that read: PHILOSOPHERS BASE / DISCUSSIONS ALL ISSUES / EXCEPT PARTY POLITICS
Achgampong explained that this was his motto. In order to attract visitors, he bought a set of speakers and a CD player, which were playing without dampening the conversation. In order to pay for both the music and electricity, Achgampong started a business where villagers could charge their cell phones, which also served to bring people to the shelter as they waited for their phones to charge. The philosophers' base was successful—when we arrived, the shelter was filled with people.
Creating this kind of atmosphere is enormously productive, even if the foundation is simply a beer or charged cell phone. In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Stephen Johnson speaks about how the best ideas often stem from the convergence of hunches within of a network of people. Hence, for example, the great number of writers and thinkers in salons and coffeehouses. It is thus particularly antithetical to the purpose of a great university that Harvard has so long struggled with social space.
It’s true, we have a few university cafés, but these are cramped and cost money. We have beloved Houses, but these are often quiet on weekend nights and do not integrate the University as a whole. The Cambridge Queen’s Head pub, Harvard’s version of the pub here in England, does an admirable job but is also limited in space and does not constitute a real center of campus life.
Meanwhile, our student center remains relatively distant and unused in the Quad. What we need is a central, spacious, and inclusive student center that is open often—especially on weekend nights. This is less impossible than it seems—the offices in Boylston Hall or University Hall could trade places with the student space in the Quad, as one of many possibilities. The University could ask for the help of alumni, as the Undergraduate Council did in the past in their attempt to buy a social space on Mount Auburn Street. However such a space is created, it would ultimately not just be safe and free from discrimination, but also home to a new, wider Harvard community.
This is the less morally pressing yet more elementary reason for a social space that anyone can enter and where everyone belongs. The others are arguably more important: In a university with a student body diverse enough that students may feel that they have little in common, a literal common ground is needed. Providing a real and equally appealing alternative to clubs that discriminate and are often the site of sexual assault should always be a priority. But even in a perfect world without these grave injustices, Harvard and universities like it should always have central, accessible social space. Such environments further the intellectual exchange and creativity that make a university valuable.
Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13, a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House, is spending spring 2012 in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahSteinLubra.