Community does not come cheap

To both aid and fuel our collective discussion about housing and community, which has been marked by the typical mix of thoughtful and less-than-thoughtful analysis, the Record spent two weeks studying residential life hoping to help everyone contemplate these issues about which we should all be well positioned to discuss. The fundamental implication of our historical work is that we have all been having the wrong conversations about housing.

The history teaches us that restoring the type of community so many of our alumni remember fondly will require substantial payments of both monies and freedoms. The house system they recall evolved into the system of lotteries and room draws because Williams collectively decided to stop “paying” for its maintenance. Any new system which could even offer the potentiality of true residential community would require all of us to pay a substantial price, and not just financially. Community does not thrive on temporal programming but instead requires the durable foundation of genuine sacrifice, especially the collective sacrifice of individual freedoms.

The cultivation of community requires not sporadic scavenger hunts and barbeques but banal activities such as sitting down to dinner and coming together around a pool table. True and fruitful residential community is about ad-hoc snowball fights, caring enough about the house to take responsibility for cleaning the common room and (unless you happen to have two TVs on top of each other with separate cable connections) reasonably deciding which football game to watch on Sunday.

The three primary causes of the failure of the house system were the end of row house dining, the rise of house transferring/room swapping and the gross disparity between the physical desirability of houses. Our current system, which the administration and others clearly see as faulty, developed as these three factors undermined the old house system, and any new attempt at true community must remedy these deficiencies for it to even have a chance.

The house system worked when first year students, in self-selected groups of four, were assigned to a house for their remaining three years. Except in extreme cases, and there were only a handful each year, students remained part of the house for better or for worse. They had their own house lottery and moved up the house’s room hierarchy over the next three years. Many students were truly invested in their house identity and in their relationships with their housemates knowing that their house would be central to their Williams experience.

Gradually, the College began allowing students more and more freedom to swap rooms and request transfers until, in the early 1990s, nearly all sophomores were in Mission, juniors in Greylock, etc. and house identity meant about as much as it does today. Coincident with the drastic increases in transfers and trades was the elimination of house dining in 1980. Many alumni point to this as the end of a meaningful house-based sense of community at Williams, which makes a lot of sense as many of us have been brought up in houses in which the most important thing we did was sit down to dinner with the family.

The lessons of this history are quite simple. If we decide that we truly want to have a sense of community and identity beyond small suite-size groups, which transcends class and activities, we have to return to forcing people to live and eat together. The tradeoffs we all need to consider involve the freedom to pick where we live and eat when we want to eat rather than the differences between a cluster and an anchor house system. If we decide that this is a price worth paying for a chance at community, we then have to figure out how to make three year living commitments and house dining work with the contemporary realities.

This would require a strong institutional commitment to this system. For example, a dining system would only work if a few nights a week (nightly house dining is probably out of the question) everyone in the house was forced to eat together. This would require all practices, committees etc. to end at 6 p.m. on house dinner nights so that the house could sit down to eat at 6:30 p.m. Frankly, although it sounds like something of the ’50s, I think it would be great if everyone were forced to come back from practice, the Record office or the library and sit down to dinner for an hour with the house three or four nights a week.

The third key to the downfall of the house system were the clear physical differences in the houses. It became very difficult to sell people “three years in Dennett” when others were getting “three years in Spencer-Brooks.” A viable resolution to this problem is also expensive, but the current message from the administration seems to be, “if we think it’s important, we’ll get the money.” Razing Mission, building a new quad on the side of that hill, and making some improvements in the Berkshire quad would not guarantee community, but it would at least give it a chance by making all of the options in an upper-class house system reasonable places to live for three years.

I realize I’ve spent a lot of money and thrown away a lot of our freedoms in this column, but these are the costs of true community. I’d probably be willing to pay them to be able to really care about where I live and have venerable old seniors to look up to as a sophomore, and climb the ladder and become one of those house veterans with a really nice room this year. Sitting down to dinner with a room full of diverse “housemates” and taking pride in one’s house’s success at IM sports and throwing parties (these are benefits of residential community, not its source) may sound a little dated, but I believe there is a lot to be said for caring about little things and not just one’s classes and activities.

A lot of people (and somewhat strangely, freshman who have never even been through room draw), speak of picking exactly where they want to live and when they want to eat as some sort of unalienable right, and throw around inflammatory and unproductive words like “social engineering” to argue against housing reform. There are strong arguments both for and against housing reform, and notions of freedom are central to them all. However, they are not as simple as some seem to think when they argue that the College is trying to usurp our fundamental rights and micromanage our lives.

There is an important discussion for us to have, but it is about neither clusters and anchor houses, nor the tyrannical violation of the sacred right to choose a room off of pieces of paper in the Mission common room. It is about recognizing the true costs and benefits of community and then deciding whether we are willing to pay them for a shot at it.

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