Reconsidering Housing and the Loneliness Paradox

Dormitory life is an Anglo-American peculiarity. Drawing on residential colleges at, for instance, Oxford and Cambridge, colleges like Amherst build their pedagogy on the firm belief that collegiate co-residence will produce a livelier intellectual atmosphere than would a university at which students go to class and then return to their separate homes. The idea is a familiar one: putting bodies together in houses and bedrooms will thrust the minds inhabiting those bodies into some kind of close-knit intellectual community. But for various reasons, the model has not fulfilled its promises and has left many students, including myself, dissatisfied. Instead of dormitory life, I argue that Amherst ought to move toward constructing apartments and co-op houses which would be rented out to groups of students. Better yet, Amherst ought to lift its restrictions to off-campus residence and allow more students to live independently. Finally, Amherst should do away with the coddling and isolating first-year quad. Not only would these measures burst the campus bubble, but they would also challenge students while enriching our intellectual and social lives. Cohesion between the various aspects of life — scholarship, self-care, socializing, domesticity and so on — can only proceed from an architectural foundation that allows for genuine community.

The residential campus is not as successful at cultivating intellectual pursuit as it would like us to believe. Ask nearly any liberal arts student what they love about their school, and they will almost certainly reply, “the people” — but are the connections we form with “the people” around us fully satisfying? Is the residential campus the best model we can envision for the realization of a vibrant intellectual community? I would argue that residential campuses actually cultivate shallow connections that perpetuate loneliness and intellectual impoverishment.

The shortage of intellectual stimuli in a place that explicitly promises intellectual stimuli results in a sensation of alienation and confusion. It’s not unlike the sensation of loneliness when surrounded by people — but that, too, is the condition of college students on residential campuses. Simply doing away with aloneness cannot, it seems, do away with loneliness. Similarly, simply bringing bodies together cannot, it seems, bring minds together. Though I won’t focus on loneliness here, I mention it because I think the two issues — a dissatisfying intellectual landscape and rampant loneliness — are related in that both are products of a failing residential system that separates the body from the mind and challenges the latter while coddling the former.

Loneliness and anti-intellectualism could be attributed to the fact that the people choose to spend their free time pursuing activities that distract from classwork, such as clubs and organizations, sports and partying. This facile claim is partially true but specious: attributing loneliness and anti-intellectualism to distractions like athletics and partying culture obscures a deeper cause, the architecture of campus. (An even deeper cause — admissions — I would not touch that with a 10-foot pole.) Our architecture coddles us at the same time as it splinters our lives into disjoined spheres. It separates the mental life from the bodily life just as it separates sustenance from sleep. Its biggest failure, though, is that it wagers that community can be created just by throwing lots of bodies into a building, as long as the building is filled with enough toys.

The splintering of our lives happens in two ways: the different activities that constitute the lives of the people are spatially separated, and the people splinter along group lines. The meaning of the latter is clear enough: groups (such as sports teams and clubs) seek to live together. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that despite professing to love “the people,” many students don’t want to live with just anyone. Many would prefer to live with their teammates or group mates because shared identities make living together less of a challenge. But this, too, is a sort of coddling — a coddling of the body from exposure to difference. This is the sort of coddling that the College ought not to facilitate.

The former kind of splintering has been less commented upon but is even more noticeable: many Amherst students eat, sleep and work in different spaces but without any sort of recognizable home to which to return. Instead of a coherent life organized around a home, Amherst students live strangely migratory, disjointed lives, floating from place to place and only stopping to settle for the occasional Val sit. Both of these kinds of splintering could be diminished if students instead had options to live in co-ops, houses or apartments for which they would be collectively responsible. The combination of independence and responsibility would help to create a more cohesive way of life: students would have an actual sense of home, and one they would actively care for and maintain. The destruction of the Socials is not a recent phenomenon: it has been ongoing for years. Before the bulldozers were partygoers who didn’t care to maintain their living space precisely because they were not responsible for their cleanliness and maintenance. Make students responsible for their lives and living spaces — for cleaning toilets, washing dishes and caring for housemates — and students will have more cohesive lives.

The new Greenway dorms — alternatively known as Legoland, Toys R Us or Chuck E. Cheese — are a good example of the splintered form of campus life. The dorms are undeniably luxurious and overflow with amenities: basketball courts, volleyball courts, event spaces and pool tables abound. But do these amenities serve the purpose of the College? I would argue that these amenities actually detract from the College’s capacity to achieve its purpose. Instead of allowing for the collaborative creation of a vibrant community of curious, inquisitive minds, these dorms hearken back to the era when colleges like Amherst were the preparatory ground for the sons (and later, daughters) of the elite — or worse, to kindergarten. The Greenway dorms are predicated on a division between work and play in which the home coddles us as a scene of pure recreation.

In contrast, a life without coddling doesn’t relegate the home to a playground: it turns the home into another scene of collaborative work, chores, cooking, cleaning and so on, but, in the last instance, a place of community. It is a shame that Amherst students can graduate without learning how to live with different kinds of people, let alone how to cook nutritious meals for ourselves. If we cannot share a home, cook, grocery shop and clean with people who are different from us, then all the classroom knowledge in the world about identity politics, feminism and antiracism is useless. Amherst can put its architecture where its politics are by investing in housing that affords students more independence and responsibility.
Alternative housing would not just build community; by erasing the sharp distinction between mental labor and bodily play, alternative student housing can turn the home into a place of intellectual exploration. Instead of relegation to the classroom and library, intellectual conversation can extend to the dinner table, kitchen and living room. My most intellectually stimulating experiences at Amherst came after I left main campus to live in the co-op house known as the Zü. No discernible social group brings the Zü members together — yet I think it is precisely this fact that allows for the Zü’s community and intellectual atmosphere.

I noted at the beginning of this article that dormitory life is an Anglo-American peculiarity. In universities across much of the rest of the world, dormitory residence is unusual, especially beyond the first year of university study. I say this to emphasize that alternative systems exist and are functional. In many university cities, students live on their own or together in houses, apartments or co-ops. Of course, finances are a concern for many students, but it bears mentioning that what the College spends on Dining Services could easily be allocated to providing subsidies for student grocery shopping. Presuming that the finances work, I think the advantages of alternative living are clear: instead of treating the body as a thing to be coddled while the mind works, such an alternative system would treat students’ bodies with respectful independence and responsibility.

This is the coddling of the American body, and its effect is to splinter us into two, the hard-working mind is wrenched from the coddled body. A successful model for a residential college is one that brings students together in holistic ways, not just for fun. Living together does not just mean drinking together, ordering pizza together and sleeping together; it also means cooking together, grocery shopping together, mopping kitchen floors together and shoveling driveways together. The life of the mind cannot be separated from the life of the body. It’s time we all grew up a little.