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A Critique of Theme Houses

The Valley News has printed an editorial that is critical of the College’s potpourri of housing options: the mix of theme houses about everything from entrepreneurship to Harry Potter. We haven’t looked at this subject for a while, but the Valley News’ objections are spot on:

… [the] new housing arrangements at Dartmouth College give pause. While well meaning and seemingly liberal-minded, some innovative “living learning communities” might actually promote insularity and social stratification. That would be an unintended but not entirely unexpected consequence of allowing students to live together according to shared interests.

“Living learning” communities and affinity groups are common on U.S. campuses, so Dartmouth isn’t breaking new ground. And there are good arguments for allowing some students — minorities and gays, in particular — to congregate in campus housing where they feel safe, secure and understood by peers.

But there are better arguments for mixing up students of different races, religions, sexual orientations and cultural perspectives. Colleges, particularly prestigious ones such as Dartmouth, like to tout their diversity. Why, then, would they want to encourage students to cluster together according to narrow interests such as veganism or Harry Potterism? College residential life ought to introduce the vegan to the carnivore, the Harry Potter fan to the Plato enthusiast, the gay to the straight, and the black to the white. Simple, easy, painless? Not necessarily. But self-segregation won’t broaden the mind or help prepare young people for real life, where one doesn’t necessarily encounter affinity groups down the street, in the gym, or on the job.

There’s evidence that those who attend college tend to be more understanding of opposing political and religious views, as well as more open-minded about other races and religions, than those who don’t attend. That’s not only because of what’s taught in the classroom but because of the campus experience.

What a shame that Phil can’t recall the democratic and diverse dorms that were an outstanding Dartmouth feature right up until the mid-80’s — as I wrote in a column in The D a decade ago. Students’ life in a “home dorm” should begin freshman year — there should be no segregrated, ‘shmen-only dorms — and they should be able to return to that all-four-classes dorm on a priority basis throughout their four years in Hanover. That successful housing system was an old tradition that should not have failed. Don’t you remember, Phil?

Addendum: Music Professor Jon Appleton writes in:

You are right about “affinity” living spaces. My first year at Reed College my two roommates could not have been more different. Walter wrote his thesis on Machiavelli and later joined the CIA. Ray studied complex mathematics and was son of a farmer. He followed in his father’s footsteps. I learned a lot from both of them. How boring it would have been if I had been in a music house.


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