Widgets Magazine


Adventures in Academia: Pondering the nature of community

I recently had an enlightening conversation with my residence fellow about community building and the difficulty of creating communities at schools like Stanford.  After the conversation, I began thinking: of all the leading issues here at Stanford like relationship abuse and mental health, the root of all of them appears to be a lack of social cohesion and trust – a lack of community.

For an almost entirely residential school, Stanford lacks the close connections between students that are the basis of a strong community.  There are of course small pockets of community, but as a whole, there are few things we all share together besides a simple identification with the school itself.

Perhaps we should not be surprised considering the sources of this social fragmentation.  It begins with the high degree of connectivity of our generation, and especially among Stanford students.  I and others have gone through entire meals without saying a word because we have pressing business to attend to on our mobile phones.  Even social networking does not build a true community, instead providing students a wider but weaker virtual community unconnected with their everyday lives.
Connectivity, though, can only partially explain our social fragmentation.  The other half is the lack of shared experiences that underpins the development of any community.  At one point, there was a limited set of majors available, with a common curriculum for all students.  The buzzword in education today though is individualization – from building our own majors to choosing one of the eighty possible combinations of IHUM courses. We simply cannot form any kind of intellectual community when the shared basis of that community does not exist.

These two trends are not inexorable – we can reduce social fragmentation with effort.  I believe the question before our generation is relatively simple: do we want to live lives of independence or lives of community?

There is a sacrifice of the personal in the creation of community.  We can either focus on building our individuality and create a wide but weak social network, or we can build strong communities that undermine the primacy of the individual.  Perhaps these two are not mutually exclusive, but they are certainly difficult to accomplish simultaneously.

If we do choose to move toward community, we will need to take specific actions to incubate the community that we seek.  There are a host of options, but it all starts with some level of sacrifice.  Perhaps it is our time, perhaps it is our freedom, but every community is predicated on forgoing something personal for the good of the whole.  This sacrifice, of course, is not a losing proposition.  The benefits of the community should outweigh the small loss of a sacrifice, and thus, an attitude of service is the foundation necessary to build a community.

From that foundation, there are multiple avenues to build different types of communities.  To create a social community, there has to be an ongoing shared experience.  Activities like going to a movie, or perhaps a theater production or a sports event allow for a common experience that builds ties of social cohesion.  When these events occur may not always be convenient – again, there is some level of sacrifice in building a community. There are also the persistent connections that can be created just through conversation – deep and meaningful conversations can create lasting relationships.

If our goal is to create an intellectual community, we need to put together shared intellectual experiences beyond merely taking the same curriculum.  Reading the same newspapers, creating book discussions and sharing diverse ideas can all help build a strong community of scholars.  This type of community is certainly not easy to create – the investment requires a fairly high level of engagement.  Yet, an intellectual community can create a unique scholastic fulfillment that no class can itself provide.
Finally, creating a residential community requires perhaps the least work, and yet remains one of the most difficult to accomplish.  Opening doors, walking around, meeting new people – not difficult by any measure, yet each requires an activation energy to get started.  Make it a personal mission to meet one person in your dorm that you have not met each week.
We live in a world with a lower level of community than before, but it does not have to be this way.  A little sacrifice, some good humor, and a little disconnection from the technology of the day may lead to some of the most cherished moments during college.  It certainly has for me.

Danny Crichton is connected at all hours of the day. Test his connectivity by sending him an e-mail at dancric@stanford.edu (you never know, it might just build a community too).

  • Steven Crane

    I agree that Stanford tends to draw many highly individualistic people, the kind of people who are frightened by a realization or acknowledgment of their interdependence. There is definitely a spectrum of freedom, trade-offs between the breadth of many fragmented connections to hundreds of people and the depth of a true community of a few dozen people who all know and interact with each other regularly. I really appreciated your article.

    At the same time, I think you forget perhaps the largest factor driving the anti-community trends you’re pointing out: size. Unfortunately, communities are not infinitely scalable. You’re not going to get the same intimacy, shared experience, and repeated face-to-face interaction at a school of 10,000 as you will in a school of 1,000 or a co-op of 50, no matter how much we try.

    Nevertheless, with what we’ve got, we DO try, awfully hard. The campus has many traditions in which nearly everybody partakes, creating a shared repertoire of Stanford experiences that DOES foster a fairly strong sense of community. Many student groups are specifically focused on the Stanford undergraduate community; the co-ops (despite some imperfections) are a tremendous example of a thriving, interconnected system; and on an academic level interdisciplinary collaboration thrives here like no other.

    I realize you probably don’t actually think that Stanford is an extremely poor community where students fly like ballistic missiles from class to class without fun, friendships, or social interactions, but your article seems a little extreme, suggesting that there’s no real community, no trust, no connections. I don’t think it’s actually that extreme. I’m just saying that I think, all in all, we do a pretty good job. We can always try harder and keep in mind community values when we plan our individual days and lives, but really, I’d be surprised if you could show me another community of 10,000 that works all that much better than ours does. Thanks Danny!

  • M

    While I agree that there are a lot of people who get caught up in academics and their own individual thing and cut ties with other students, I think that there are a LOT of communities on campus that are being completely disregarded with this article. There are strong ethnic communities in houses and centers, and thriving email lists for groups who believe in things from queer rights to sustainability to juggling as the best sport ever. Similarly there are numerous Greek (fraternity/sorority) communities that are tight knit, as well as dorm houses that have close connections, all of which provide support for their members.

    I’m not sure what your ideal community is, but I know plenty of groups of friends who go out to movies, have intense intellectual discussions over dinner, and who also share ideas on a regular basis. I also know people who were missing that close connection with other people, but were able to find it through one group or another.

    While I know some people are pretty disconnected, and I definitely know many people who long for more community (which is a completely legitimate desire), I think that there are a lot of groups that already exist to try to help with these feelings of isolation. Obviously creating more community is a good thing, my only issue with this article is the fact that it presents it as some shining goal that we need to create because it doesn’t exist. I think it does exist, and that a lot of people just haven’t thoroughly explored/searched out the options that exist here at Stanford.

  • J

    I think this article simply reflects the sort of lifestyle that the author leads.

    Stanford, although large, does have a sense of community. Whether it be from the traditions all students partake in, the freshmen dorm bonds, or the close friendships one builds over time, there is community.

    Compare Stanford to a larger school such as Berkeley where there is NO sense of community. No class pride and no school traditions other than their hatred for Stanford. This is a college campus, we are not in high school anymore. There is not going to be the same affinities, easy access to a common group of people or ability to see a group of friends at all times.

    Perhaps Mr.Crichton should get out a little and make more friends. Claiming that we all need to meet one new person a day and get out more reflects, perhaps, his desperation for friendship. Furthermore, if one is social, then there will be no problem putting down the cell phone and interacting with other human beings even if for 5minutes.