If there is a single social rule that persuades most students to live off-campus, it is obviously the restriction for undergraduates parietal hours. To University administrators this might seem a trivial reason to give up the social and intellectual advantages of the House; to many undergraduates it is a matter of great importance. For the restrictions on women in the Houses determine considerably more than the hours during which one can have a 'Cliffie in one's room.
Parietal hours perpetuate the whole clumsy American system of dating: of choosing a movie you don't really want to see, of forcing pointless conversations, of sitting for hours in an uncomfortable restaurant just to be with a girl that you like. They reinforce the notion that women are some sort of special object, to be seen at certain hours.
They also reinforce the idea that women are objects for sex, rather than friends or companions in love. Everyone knows that parietal rules do nothing to dissuade people from premarital intercourse, or to defend against pregnancy. But they do serve to deny the less explicitly sexual aspects of romance: joking over breakfast, talking comfortably in the early afternoon about some phase of that morning's work.
But parietal rules will probably remain more or less intact, out of consideration for other people in the Houses and in deference to public and parent's opinion. Surely, for some undergraduates, the chance to have fully relaxed relationships with women is as important as an additional year in an intellectual Utopia.
There are considerable personal difficulties in living off campus Loneliness can be a problem of geography rather than personality. Bad judgment is more painful when there is no institution to rely on. If money runs scarce in the middle of term, there is no Dining Hall to provide three meals a day. But these are problems that a man will have to-confront once he leaves Cambridge.
It is probably true that no Harvard undergraduate is living in what people call the real world. But undergraduates who live off campus are more likely to organize their experience into harmony with the society around them than those who remain in the Houses. Even the detail of daily life--shopping in the grocery store, walking home through commercial streets, dealing with neighbors who have nine to five jobs--make them as much a part of the city as of the academic community. If these people are lucky, they can have some of the best--and worst--of two interesting worlds, and grow up more quickly at the same time.