Unanimity impossible on housing issues

As we at the Record researched our two-week series on housing, we studied, presented, and hopefully illuminated some of the options presented by the College’s current discussion of residential life. Despite this knowledge, in attempting to formulate a consensual and strong opinion as to the ultimate goals of the College’s assessment of residential life, we realized that the “correct” answer is not as apparent as many people claim it to be.

As a result, we cannot present a unanimous argument for one option, system, philosophy or even goal for our structure of residential life. We acknowledge that a fundamental tension exists between student autonomy and structurally dictated interaction, and because of this tension, no one solution can solve every perceived problem. Instead of trying to achieve this impossible goal, the CUL must decide on a particular vision for the Williams housing system, a process that necessarily involves questioning not only what structure to implement but also the values implicit in this structure.

What follows is an argument that we believe is novel in that it addresses not just “whether the cluster system might work,” but examines whether the values promoted by such a system are those that the College should strive for in its residential policy. Although we neither endorse nor reject the specific direction of the following, we do support its emphasis on clarifying goals and values, and hope that in redefining the issue it will act as a springboard for debate.

When faculty or alumni reminisce about the days of house affiliation, they use terms like “transcendent”—as in transcending more diverse interests—and “unifying” —as in bringing together people who would not otherwise form bonds. These memories are not illusions. The sense of “community” fostered by the cluster system was very real, and, given the tendency of Williams students to embrace artificial labels, the system would likely enjoy similar success today.

But what, really, is this sense of “community,” of which we speak? It is a term that many have been using of late, and one that deserves definition. Although definitions vary, there is a component shared by most: the existence of a common interest. What, then, would be the “common interest” binding together a housing cluster? The desire to win a tricycle race? The desire to build a better snow sculpture? These “common interests” can make for a lot of shouting and a lot of hand-slapping, but is there anything real underlying them?

The cluster system is often compared to the freshman entry system—in both, a group is created out of a diverse collection of people. In the freshman entry system, this unit bonds over snacks, banner-stealing and, more than anything else, physical proximity. The recipe for the cluster system is the same—simply replace the traditions and increase the time of physical proximity. By virtue of comparison, then, wouldn’t the cluster system work?

It would—to a degree. For despite the almost desperate enthusiasm with which they are formed, bonds formed in an entry are delicate bonds, bonds that, more often than not, break when confronted with the competing pulls of hockey, Frosh Revue, junior year abroad, or, more than anything else, the diaspora of sophomore year.

It’s not that the cluster system won’t “work.” If instituted, and instituted whole-heartedly, tricycles will once more circle the Frosh Quad, and house affiliation will become the primary label by which students are identified. But do we really want this constructed identity? Do we want to be defined as a building? Yes, some of the labels we use today are not complimentary – “jock,” “Warpie,” “dork.” But at least they are labels that come from choices we made, not choices made for us by a computer sorting system.

Yes, there will inevitably be some who will not succumb to the groupthink allure of house identification, just as there were some who remained outside house affiliation even in the glory days of the system. But for the vast majority of us, house identification will be unavoidably attractive, just as entry bonding was a heady and exhilarating experience. But after four years, we leave Williams, and in the real world, we have to find our own groups. Would it not be better to enter that world with a firm idea of our own identity, one formed not from an arbitrary affiliation but from our own values, interests and ideas as pursued, tested, and reaffirmed within the residential life structure of the College?

What is the ultimate goal of this housing reevaluation? If it is to ensure that every student has a place to sit at dinner, or to ensure the existence of a common bank of shared “Williams” memories, then the house affiliation system is the way to go.

But if its goal is to give students a supportive environment in which they can form their own senses of identity, then housing affiliation, despite its temptation, is the wrong path to take.

The goal of Williams is to prepare us for life; academically, socially, and emotionally. In order to reach this goal, the residential system must push us out of our comfortable nests and force us to realize that community is not something you fall back on, it’s something you build.

In making choices about residential life, we must balance the often competing values of student autonomy with those of perceived “community.” Attempting to simultaneously maximize benefits such as student choice, diverse interactions, class unity, comfort and countless others through a residential life system is impossible: we will have to make choices about what we want our system to achieve.

The question is one of values, and students, faculty, staff and administrators must discuss the interaction of these values and the assumptions surrounding them instead of merely examining specific proposals. It is the obligation of the CUL to provide a formalized venue for this discussion in the coming months, a task which it has yet to effectively undertake.