Phi Beta Cons

The Worth of the Residential College

The idea of a university is the idea of a fundamentally human institution. That is, the university isn’t merely a knowledge factory where facts and formulas are conveyed to a perpetually new set of young people; the university — as a physical space, a residential college — is designed to foster relationships among people and across generations.

It’s easy to get caught up in policy and ideology, and for alumni and townspeople especially to come to think of their job as primarily one of arguing among themselves for some abstract conception of the good of their institution. And as important as policy can be, what’s so much more important is knowing the students.

I should apologize for belaboring this point, but what I’m saying is that the job of alumni and townspeople is to actually come to know specific studentsin a direct, authentic, personal way.

The Rotary and Kiwanis and Lions Clubs over the years have done a tremendous job of connecting similar interest groups, and college administrators do a tremendous job of creating opportunities for students to associate among themselves in their own interest groups.

But what it seems like we’re presently lacking is a vision for common association across our specific interest groups — it seems like we’re lacking the social framework for common, civic experiences.

Alumni and townspeople have the unique advantage of experience of their institution and experience of the place (in a literal, geographic sense) of their communities. Perhaps more than any two other groups, alumni and townspeople can help break down the soloing effect of the contemporary campus experience by creating opportunities to form relationships with students and for students, professors, townspeople, alumni, and friends to interact in a common space.

Wisdom and knowledge and experience is best conveyed personally. This has been the central premise of the residential college model of higher learning. If this model is to survive, coming to know the students and form a non-segregated-by-special-interests community is the unique rule of alumni and townspeople.

This will call for new visions of campus and town life with an historically-rooted conception of the future. It’s something Ben Novak tries to get at in his 2012 book Is Penn State a Real University? in wondering about the university as a “living ideal.”

At the end of the day, it’s as simple as taking a walk across campus and striking up a conversation.

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