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The Authoritarian Communitarian Impulse

The Chronicle of Higher Education contains a fascinating account of an anthropology professor who spent a year posing as an undergrad student as part of a study of modern student life. Many of her findings were unsurprising (particularly for those of us who can still remember our own college days). Students are busy, focused on careers more than a love of learning, and they are animated by an overwhelming desire to have “fun.” The professor’s observations then led to this comment:

That fun is a fundamental law of college life is no revelation to administrators who work closely with students, many of whom expect their college to entertain as well as educate them.
More surprising are Ms. Nathan’s observations of the way students’ demand for choice complicated the elusive ideal of community. Although students claimed to like the notion of a close-knit campus, their own particular interests led them in too many different directions to make such a campus possible.
At the “over-optioned” university, she writes, the sheer number of extracurricular activities ensured that students were rarely in the same place at once, despite campus efforts to bring them together.
Students moved in small packs. Few events organized by resident assistants drew a crowd. The one exception was a workshop on how to make edible underwear, timed for Valentine’s Day.
Even the cozy communal spaces in dorms often went unused. “Hall mates,” Ms. Nathan writes in her book, “were like ships that passed in the night.”

The phrase that stood out to me—“the elusive ideal of community”—reminds me of the impulse that animates many of the abuses that FIRE fights. From the Shippensburg speech code to Washington State’s heckler’s veto, university attempts to foster feelings of “community” often veer from exhortation to coercion. The desire to create a “close-knit campus” is understandable and—in many ways—laudable. Yet these attempts often collide not merely with the law, but also with the student culture itself. There is very little reason to believe that the modern secular campus will be any different from polarized red/blue America—a contentious, pluralistic melting pot of different ideas, religions, races, and ideologies. In such a circumstance, “community” often means “peaceful coexistence” more than it does “love and harmony.” This reality can be particularly frustrating for student life administrators who often define their job as creating the very kind of harmonious community that students say they want but then do very little to create. Consequently, it becomes easier to understand why these administrators are so tempted to use the institutional power at their disposal, both to coerce communitarian actions and attitudes and to punish those who threaten the community spirit that administrators spend so much time trying to build.

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