Let’s avoid social engineering

Fall has spread its patchwork of hues over Williamstown once again. Winter is not far off. Most students have settled into their rhythm as far as studying, partying and running away naked from the Williamstown Police are concerned. Some students, however, are busy redesigning the architecture of student life. Something is foul in the state of Williams College.

The most common gripes with the status quo are a lack of diversity, discontent among all sorts of minority students lack of integration among well-defined social groups, and a general apathy about issues of community at Williams. This last one we will dismiss as a natural consequence of the people in charge being precisely those who are most interested in issues of community. If you don’t care, you’re not on the alphabet soup of committees whose sole existence seems to be giving those who care about everybody else’s quality of life something to do between four and six a couple of days a week.

Fortunately, Williams students are by and large smarter than their self-appointed leaders. They tolerate the sanctimoniousness of their peers rather like one has to tolerate New York Yankee fans in October. It doesn’t really matter, but we let them think it does.

Minority discontent is a somewhat more serious issue, but it seems that some think that this is a problem that can be remedied through housing reform. The fact is that by and large, within more or less democratic institutions, minorities everywhere will always be unhappy that their desires can be frustrated by a majority.

There are more disgruntled minorities on campus than just those benefited by affirmative action programs, however.  There are Phi Beta Kappa students (why does all this money and attention go to sports teams?), Republicans (diversity? like diversity of political opinion among the faculty?), individualists (what’s all this community crap anyway?), envi-kids (recycle, turn the light off…), and numerous others. We all have our interests and those things we wish other people did or didn’t do. If we can’t make other people live like we want them to, of course we’re unhappy.

Whatever is said about minority discontent at Williams, let’s remember that it’s the same everywhere and worse the smaller and the more rural the school is.

As far as integration of social groups is concerned, one has to be a bit skeptical about how it is reformers want to shape the way we live at Williams. Somehow the idea is floating around that self-segregation is a bad thing. This is idiotic. Self-segregation is how diverse communities breathe and regulate themselves so as to maximize individual comfort and minimize conflict.Â

Individuals have fundamentally different social needs and have four years in which to learn what kind of living arrangement suits them best. If your residential life is constantly arranged for you, when is it exactly that you learn what suits you best? While the entry system is held up as the poster-child of what college experience should be like, I’m fairly confident in saying that as many had to suffer through their entry as those who loved it. The entry experience simply cannot be repeated in subsequent years. In one year, freshmen grow from timorous kids who know no one to members of self-organized groups of friends, sometimes along entry lines, sometimes not. Making people live next to a different group of people the next year does not sever the ties they made the year before (although I would argue it weakens them) and does not really create new ones because attempts at integrating these new housing structures have little impact because students already have good friends elsewhere, reducing the interest in participating. While I would argue that having structures that permit meeting new people is important, I would also argue that any hindrance at students’ ability to create their individualized environments is undesirable.

The ability to control one’s environment is an essential component of one’s self-esteem and security. The discomfort and alienation of those separated from their friends through the vagaries of the housing draw is often obvious. The balance between community and diversity can be tenuous enough as it is without imposing “one-size-fits-all” rules on how people should organize their living and social arrangements.

There are few experiences as satisfying as creating a comfortable living arrangement with friends, where interaction is relaxed and a world of shared symbols, meanings, and understandings is created. To be sure, this is not where we grow as individuals, but it is the safe haven where the individuals we are can reaffirm themselves and be relieved of the pressures of life for awhile. Housing is simply not the place where individuals should be challenged. The college experience is full of challenges without the complications of housing.

There are many different outlets for people to meet each other at Williams. Williams is lucky to have students who are involved in a wide variety of extra-curriculars. No, this does not guarantee that “different people” (whatever that means) will meet nor that they will like each other, but it does provide that opportunity. What should be done is make sure that extra-curricular activities are encouraged and supported by the College.

In addition, every effort should be made to make participation in these activities easier. A proposal I heard at the Committee of Undergraduate Life last week was that sports teams could organize open practices or nights where interested students could come learn a new sport. Every organization could be encouraged to do something of the kind and perhaps be provided with resources to do it. Forcing people to live or interact together, who do not wish to, is something the College should reconsider. Institutions can only do so much for us. No one can tell us what the right balance of diversity and community is anymore than anyone can tell us the right ratio of peanut butter and jelly in our sandwiches. It’s something we each have to discover for ourselves, leaving open the possibility that in fact some of us might not even like peanut-butter or jelly for that matter, and that this is just fine. Forcing one particular living arrangement on students is like the dining hall providing us with one combination of peanut butter and jelly day after day.  Ultimately, while the responsibility for not hindering social interaction on campus might fall on institutional structures, the responsibility for the successes and failures of student life should lie with the students.