There is a crisis of community at the modern American university, which is ironic, because the modern American university is all about “community”: the “community of learners” and the “athletic community,” the myriad “faith communities,” the “Black Community Services Center.” Freshmen at Harvard this year will participate in “Community Conversations,” which aims to help students “develop a sense of shared responsibility for upholding a compassionate and respectful community.”
But there is no surer sign of the absence of actual community on the American campus than the presence of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the other trappings that are as much staples around the typical quad as bongs and Bernie Sanders T-shirts. Having spent decades making universities “diverse,” progressives are now apparently of the opinion that a diverse group of people cannot get along unless every potential source of friction between them is preemptively suppressed.
Many institutions now find themselves at an impasse. On one hand is the principle of academic freedom, long seen as a sine qua non of the university. On the other is the need to accommodate the complex of psychological demands students are bringing to campus. But this conundrum is not inescapable. One way out is to restore a more substantive notion of community.
In a lecture delivered in Munich in 1950, the German philosopher Josef Pieper contended that the development of the academy reflected its origins in the original academy, Plato’s, the core of which was a philosophical disposition toward every object of knowledge: “an attitude toward the world which is only concerned with the fact that things reveal themselves as they are — which is what truth actually consists of.” This disposition was shared by all members of Plato’s school — it was its animating principle — and it transcended disciplinary boundaries. Some 1,500 years later, it was the impulse guiding the medieval university’s use of scholastic disputation (disputatio), which “excluded no argument and no partner, and thereby automatically enforced a universality of aspects.”
What did students of these earlier eras have in common — that is, what grounded their “community”? In contradistinction to today’s universities, which are governed by a negative principle of non-interference, the older academy was marked by a positive, shared orientation. Teachers and students were voluntary participants in a common project.
This, I’d suggest, is real community — and the more intentional and all-encompassing the orientation, the more intense the community. It’s for that reason that arguably the tightest form of community in the Western world has been the monastery. And it’s surely no coincidence that monasteries have been focal points of Western learning.
Of course, the unity of the university now exists only formally. The university has been diced up into hyper-specialties that neither have nor want to have anything to do with one another. The typical university is a sort of intellectual shopping mall: lots of unrelated stores housed under one roof. Were it not for the football team, the anthropology major and the nursing student at State U would have pretty much nothing in common. There is no shared purpose.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the university that has renounced its universality is suffering a crisis of community among its students, or that it has repaired to blunt instruments such as “safe spaces” to create ersatz peace. After all, the community described above — which, put a different way, is simply the natural by-product of worship, where the community is stronger the higher the object of worship — cannot be imposed; it can arise only organically, as people come voluntarily to desire the same thing. (You can’t impose an appreciation for a fine wine or a good cigar.)
Restoring community on campus, then, will require universities’ inducting students into a common purpose and encouraging them in the task of making that purpose their own. Where that happens, conflict will not have to be stifled; it can be encouraged under the sign of that common purpose. Genuine bonds are formed by people who struggle with one another, but honestly, in good faith, and toward a shared end. To prevent intellectual tension from ever arising is to prevent, also, the exercise of the virtues that allow two people to move from superficial opposition into real, fruitful conversation. That is, genuine community is forged out of conflict, not in spite of it.
Obviously, this is difficult, and facilitating the creation of such a community is a distant prospect for many schools. Asserting a single, overarching purpose seems regressive; the culture and perhaps the financial incentives seem to be running in the opposite direction. But the collapse of community will be the end of the university, in time, because there can be no learning in a place where everyone is at everyone else’s throat. So universities should act now to lay the groundwork for substantive, lasting community.
In the short term, this will require articulating — and enforcing — a dedication to the common purpose of unhindered inquiry. The University of Chicago has done something like that this year, by issuing a letter to incoming freshmen reiterating the university’s longstanding “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” and announcing that it will not support safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the other devices used to clamp down on that inquiry and expression.
But this must be only a first step toward reestablishing a unifying purpose in which teachers and students can participate. In the long term, this may mean radically reconstituting the academy as we’ve known it. Perhaps it will be advisable to find ways to make specialized research a freestanding enterprise, so that the college can focus on its traditional core: tutoring undergraduates in the liberal arts and sciences. Perhaps we will have to dispense with the mantra of “college for all” where “college” means a four-year liberal-arts degree, instead encouraging the vast majority of students to enter vocational study, whether the vocation be electrical engineering or medicine or the law. And because real communities are built around shared ends, perhaps we will have to abandon the cult of selectivity that dominates today’s higher education, in which “the best” schools are defined by the percentage of students they reject.
However it’s done, the university must address its crisis of community, which is fundamentally a crisis of purpose. Those institutions that do may find a way out of the current impasse, creating conditions in which “safety” and free inquiry facilitate each other.