Last night I took part in something special. At Blount Hall’s biannual open mic night, Blount students of all ages gathered in the lobby and took turns showcasing their various talents. Among us were singers, rappers, musicians, poets, and yes, one very bold stand-up comedian. The performers, none of whom had formal training, took the stage without inhibition and each shared something very personal with the large audience. The atmosphere was warm, the air a continuous stream of cheering and laughter punctuated by frequent applause. There was an undeniable sense of community.
I worry, however, that scenes like the one last night are quickly vanishing from college life. It is hard to tell whether it’s being imposed from the top down or demanded by student consumers at the bottom, but we students frequently reject the closeness afforded by a communal setting.
We enjoy having barriers between others and ourselves. The campus of yesterday is dotted with Blounts, Burkes and Patys, whereas the campus of tomorrow will be marked by high rise condominiums like Riverside, Ridgecrest and whatever that behemoth is that is going up in the Rose Towers parking lot. Shared bedrooms and communal bathrooms are disappearing, as are the large gathering spaces that facilitate community. We’ve traded open spaces for walls — the more of them the better. Many on campus live with four or more walls between them and those across the hall. We like retreating to our single bedrooms and having everything we need within arms reach. God forbid we have to go downstairs to the community kitchen — there might be people there.
As students become more individualistic, we become uncomfortable with each other. We think of our social lives as constituting a major element of our college experience, but just how social are we? I’m finding that most students are hesitant, if not unwilling, to commune with each other without certain buffers in place.
Every Tuesday and Thursday I walk into a large lecture hall filled with around 150 students, and I am struck by how quiet the room is. Almost all heads are down and glued to devices as students hammer out those last few texts before class starts. Our devices relieve us of the burden of face-to-face interaction. Compared with digital correspondence, human interaction is raw, uncontrolled and intimate. As we abandon talking for texting, we’ve gotten rather bad at it. Now that we’ve forgotten how to interact with other, we see face-to-face meetings as awkward, and people who initiate them as creepy. Our devices purport to plug us in to a larger, online community, but all they really do is allow us to withdraw from the real community that is all around us, and we prefer it this way.
We do still gather in person from time-to-time. But when physical and digital barriers are removed, they are merely replaced by alcohol. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a few drinks, but I’m slightly saddened by the manner in which alcohol has gone from being a mere additive to weekend fun, to being a prequisite for fun. It’s the medium through which our conversations take place. If we must interact face-to-face, we often choose to dull our sensibilities and again miss out on the satisfaction that comes with genuine human interaction.
In my view, many of us have lost a sense of community. We have willingly given it up. But whether we know it or not, we still need it. Unconsciously, we try to recreate it with a proliferating number of student organizations and clubs. In their first year on campus, students are bombarded with urgings to “get involved” and to “find your niche!” But weekly meetings and the occasional group project are a poor substitute for the rich, vibrant community one can only experience when living among its members. And, at the end of the day, if you depend on your professional life for community and simply put-up with the people you live with, your notion of community is inverted.
I’m not sure how to get it back, but I think that true community is slowly disappearing from the increasingly modernized, corporatized and digitized college campus. While it is students who gave it away, I think we, on some level, feel a sense of loss. A quick survey of the past two years’ opinions columns will find many writers decrying a lack of student unity and the increasing fragmentation and atomization of campus. We see political divides, racial divides and social divides. They are real, but they are made worse when students can bypass their campus living experience without having to learn how to coexist with other people. I suppose the first step back towards community would be to first learn how to sit alone with ourselves, which also demands that we put down the smartphones and alcohol. After that, it’s hard to say, but I think it’s time we try to recreate it.
Evan Ward is a senior majoring in history. His column runs on Wednesdays.