A Place Called Community

As this year’s cohort of wide-eyed freshmen take up their places at Harvard, they will find that the teeming chaos of campus gradually resolves itself into a clearer set of courses, extracurriculars, and social organizations. Simply put, you will—hopefully—discover an interest, a way to pursue it and, like a well-behaved oil slick, spread out and be absorbed by your new habitat.

But some people believe that this is not enough. By some mysterious consensus students seem to agree that Harvard lacks any sense of Community – a term written with a capital C and whispered with reverence – and that it needs to (somehow) create this panacea for all social and moral ills on campus.

The argument goes that if only students felt at home in a campus-wide or house-based social group, they would cease to be workaholic/alcoholic wrecks, and become happy social creatures. Such an environment, so they say, would draw the geeks out of their shells, enlighten the rich kids, integrate the internationals, and most importantly, broaden everyone’s horizons.

Advocates propose various methods of establishing this social Eden, including more administration social planning (usually via the house system), scrapping the blocking system, and increasing house dining hall restrictions—anything to get students out of doing whatever they usually do, and back in the house communities where they belong. With these interventions, our social engineers hope to create idyllic residential communities à la the Oxford/Cambridge collegiate system (whereby students live, study and mostly socialize within their 100-200 person housing groups).

But rarely do such campaigners actually examine the system they so heartily applaud. At Oxford, and other schools with similar artificially constructed communities, students are segregated not by interest or choice, but by random fortune. The result is a narrower social sphere with friendship groups based roughly along the lines of first-year stairwell housing—or whoever else students are lucky enough to run into. This would be all well and good if it made them happier or, as its supporters claim, broadened their horizons. But in reality, this makes many students feel limited, isolated and unhappy. Those who don’t get on with the group have to either lump it, retreat from socializing or make extraordinary efforts to find the few strong extracurricular communities that exist (such as the Oxford Debating Union).

Perversely, Harvard’s Community deficiency has created a campus culture of vibrant extracurricular activities that double as social organizations. And it is here that real communities are to be found, amongst the sci-fi boffins, dance classes and even The Salient’s cozy Burke Reading Group. Much like the workplace after college, they are a mix of social and “professional” dynamics. And unlike housing groups, these far more valuable communities are easily accessible, well-established and wide-ranging.

Yet would-be Community builders are dismayed by the notion that social groups should form the basis of choice. Instead of this self-segregation based on personal interests, Community builders would prefer to jumble students into pretty little diverse coveys: one minority student, one athlete, one geek, one international, and one valley girl and hey presto!—the magic of Community has broadened our horizons and made us all happy little intellectuals. No doubt the College thinks itself terribly clever in its similar-minded efforts with freshman housing.

Alas, life does not work that way. People always seek out their own “safe space” amongst those who share their interests and mindset. Extracurricular communities are one of the best ways of bringing different people from backgrounds and cultures together: a violinist in the Signet is not primarily a Mexican or a Jew, but a musician. Not only do these groups provide a social outlet for any interested student, whether shy or social, they also throw together people from different backgrounds and outlooks, on the basis of a common interest.

There are, of course, less diverse extracurricular organizations—the female debater, for example, is a rare specimen. And cultural or background-based groups specialize in bringing people together on the basis of race (the Black Students’ Association), wealth (the Hasty Pudding social club), and religion (Hillel) etc. But as a whole, extracurriculars, more than any other kind of organization, classify people by what they do, not where they come from. The notion that college-enforced communities, or “house pride” et al., can create more natural and diverse social groups is both naïve and patronizing.

If students really want to socialize more within their houses, they will surely give more money to House Committees to organize such events. If, as evidence suggests, they would rather devote their time and energy to stimulating activities alongside like-minded colleagues, well-meaning Community-seekers should cease in their efforts to subvert them. At best—as is now the case—house communities are ineffective; at worst, they undermine the naturally occurring activity-based communities on campus.

Incoming freshmen would do well to branch out from their entryway communities—dictated by the College—and avoid extensive involvement in background-based groups. The most interesting and diverse communities to be found at Harvard are defined by what the people in them do, not where they come from, nor where they live on campus. These groups, more than politics, name, or academics, are the College’s main asset.

And if, as the house utopians suggest, these are not good enough—are not real communities because they are organizations entered into and left by choice—then, to paraphrase Mrs. Thatcher, “There is no such thing as community.”

Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.