Monday, February 14, 2005

Creating Community

Today was one of my professor's 87th birthday and to celebrate the school wheeled in a cake and we all sang Happy Birthday before class (he made us wait until the last fifteen minutes to indulge in the cake and coffee). This got me to thinking about how we, as humans, create community. In my last job before graduate school we talked a lot about creating a community of learners, which is a task made easier (at least in some respects) when operating in an environment of a walk-to elementary school. How one creates such an environment in a higher education setting seems to be a bit more difficult.

First, aside from a small to midsized graduate department, higher education is more diffuse in terms of its students, faculty and staff. People are operating on much different schedules and finding time for community is therefore more difficult. But I think a more challenging hurdle is society's belief in higher education's instrumental value, which I would argue obtains in most all areas except for the more "intellectual" graduate programs (and maybe some undergraduate departments, like philosophy or theology).

There has also been a decline in community in society at large, which likely contributes to the problem in academia. Much of our means of creating and nurturing community came from religion and civic groups. With the decline of religion's influence on society (at least with respect to religion as a means for collective action outside of the electoral sphere, where such action has arguably increased)and people's ever busier work/professional life our sense of community, or shared interests, has abated.* (I would also argue that the internet also has a fragmenting effect, as well as its more noted communal effect.)

Some remnants of the religion based community activities still remain, such as weddings and baptisms. But these are, I would argue, more tribal than communal. It is the family and close friends who come together, not a community. And while these are invariably positive for society, they do not bring about community as something larger than our familial universe.

But what does all this matter, anyway? At least in the higher education atmosphere, I would argue that a sense of community allows students to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves. In the law school context, it could add a sense of responsibility for the legal profession and not just an ability to pay off mosntrously large student debt at any cost. A sense of community provides some notion of history and establishes connections between students and faculty that go beyond the imparting of very specific classroom knowledge. Again, in the environment of law school, it gives students and professors alike a common purpose, rather than what I would argue is a more disjointed system where students are concerned with passing the bar and getting a job and professors are focused on publishing law review articles and engaging primarily with the ideas of other academics.

Finally, the most important argument for community in higher education as I see it, is that it makes for a more enjoyable experience, both for students and faculty. Both parties are benefited when each are working towards the same goals. For the student, school becomes something more than a hassle to endure. And, for faculty, teaching becomes more than something they have to do in order to be able to research and publish. A sense of community brings about a better climate in higher education, which makes for better students and better teachers. And, society itself benefits from a healthier and more robust academic atmosphere.

* for a detailed argument about civic decline, see Bowling Alone by Putnam


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