Harvard College’s House system was established in 1930 as a means of combating socioeconomic stratification in off-campus housing. Since then, it has continually progressed in different forms as a means of unifying the student body. Most recently, in 1995, after concerns about students self-segregating along racial and religious lines, the College implemented a system of assigning freshmen blocking groups randomly to Houses in the spring semester. Today, however, it is time for the next step. With an increasingly diverse student body and newly focused attention on exclusive social organizations and student happiness, the House system holds the potential to truly unite and serve the College. To do so, however, House systems must be expanded to include students from the moment they arrive at Harvard.
Harvard ranked 25th out of 31 elite schools, behind Yale, in a survey of student satisfaction, lagging particularly in student evaluations of social life on campus and sense of community. These problems have their roots in the very beginnings of student life for freshmen, when groups and communities begin to form. Without the grounding and support offered by a House, finding community is a challenge.
It is during freshman year, of course, that social and blocking groups form. A unifying House system would discourage the formation of groups based on economic and social statuses. Instead, students would feel encouraged to find friends from within their House rather than from their high school, religious background, region of the country, or race, knowing that they would be together for their time at Harvard.
Such a system would be particularly beneficial for inner-city, poor, minority and first-generation students at Harvard, who have expressed struggles transitioning to the environment in the College. These students often do not know anyone coming into college and need guidance. With dedicated upperclassmen, House resources and a group of peers much smaller than the entire freshman class, the transition to the College for these students will be eased, and inequity among backgrounds will be combated.
If this change seems unusual or improbable, it is valuable to look at Yale. The residential college system there is similar to Harvard’s House system, except students are randomly assigned to a residential college before arriving as freshmen. Yale, too, has its own version of final clubs—secret societies—and there are fraternities and sororities as well. Though they are arguably far less pervasive and pernicious, there has been little to no outcry against them, with the administration actually seeking closer ties in recent months.
By creating a community early on, a freshman-inclusive House system will discourage students from filling the void with exclusive single-gender organizations. Lamenting a current lack of student unity and social interaction, a student wrote in The Crimson, “Freshman spring, I joined a sorority because I wanted to find community at Harvard.” There, close-knit bonds and social venues are promised. However, accusations of exclusivity, sexual assault, and a pernicious influence on the overall College environment are rampant. In response, the College administration is preparing to impose sanctions on participating students, but these are unlikely to truly solve the problem of exclusivity and a lack of social venues.
The key to this is choice, with students at Harvard lacking a vibrant House social life and turning to other means for it. Freshmen, however, would be more likely to invest in House activities, developing the close-knit bonds across blocking groups that defines Yale’s system. Indeed, this would level the playing field, providing social opportunities even for those students not wealthy or well-connected enough to join a single-gender social organization. It would also be a powerful way to combat those organizations, as their prevalence would be challenged.
There will of course be students who find close friends with whom they want to live outside of this proposed system. Perhaps an option to transfer Houses would be warranted. Additionally, to preserve the experience of freshmen in the Yard, it would likely work best to assign a dorm or section of a dorm to one specific House, so freshmen live alongside their House-mates while still together as a class in the Yard.
Ultimately, however, beyond the elimination of blocking drama and diminishing of social organization influence, including freshmen in the House system will invite the creation of powerful House communities. No student will block alone, and every freshman—regardless of socioeconomic background, wealth or high school—will be welcomed from the start. In the historical progress of the Houses as components of Harvard’s fight against vestiges of institutionalized social, racial, and religious inequity, this is the next important step.
Caleb J. Esrig ’20, a Crimson Editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.
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