Groups are all about choice — unlike colleges

Last Friday’s News’ View took a staple of passing conversation and reapplied it as a social observation: Students never have enough time to do all the things we want, and the choices we make about how to spend that time determine with which communities we identify ourselves. This issue of community is being raised on this page in discussions of “self-segregation” among student groups and of the proposed addition of new colleges, both of which boil down to the question of what students should be allowed to choose.

It is true, as Niko Bowie pointed out on this page yesterday, that membership in most student communities is open to anyone who chooses to join. It is also true, however, that while a student theoretically could be a member of any community on campus — academic department, extracurricular group etc. — this is impossible on a practical level.

Ideally, logistical difficulties would not significantly threaten student choice. Each student would be free to choose the communities most important to him, devote his time and energies to them and claim them as the salient aspects of his identity. But in fact, some kinds of community are considered more important to identity than others, to the point where it is impossible to escape their classification.

The residential college system is the paramount example. While I could defy my heritage by joining an African dance troupe or my politics by joining the Yale College Libertarians, I was not allowed to apply to the Branford Buttery despite spending as much time there already as any current employee: Nominally, I am in Berkeley.

As transfer is logistically difficult and often simply impossible, college assignments are not only arbitrary but also binding. These same characteristics are often attributed to race and contribute to the unfairness of race-based policies. To compare college assignment to race ignores the historical and global relevance of the latter, but it is important to note that college distinctions are tied up with politics and inequality — as Julian Prokopetz’s column yesterday explained.

In discussing the prospective addition of two new residential colleges, we should question the purpose of the system itself. Do residential colleges exist to provide a basic community for those who might be lost without one? If so, perhaps we are discriminating against students who have other communities by tying the college system to everything from housing to room use, and might better provide space for special interest or general housing. Or are colleges more important, superseding other self-selected communities to ensure a diverse experience for all?

It is here that the issue of self-segregation comes into play — after all, most communities, from varsity athletics to a cappella groups to friends, self-segregate to some extent. Many would argue that it is the bonds formed within smaller communities that make the college experience worthwhile. After all, when pressed to determine what the “typical Yalie” does, we resort to threadbare stereotypes such as “work hard, play hard” or give up entirely. Mandating diversity ensures that students will make contact with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet, but it doesn’t ensure that the experience will inspire the same loyalty that a self-chosen community would.

That said, the prospect of uniting the student body is not an entirely hopeless one. The pageantry of the Harvard-Yale game every November goes a long way toward sweeping everybody up, as does Spring Fling — which, unlike The Game, does not require loyalty to be defined by clannish hatred of another group. It is much harder to facilitate discussion among all students. Issues such as the Record controversy last fall inspired plenty of personal conversations among friends who agreed with each other, but the forum intended to bring dissenting viewpoints together was not representative of many students’ opinions.

I hope the “discussion and debate” President Levin intends to generate on the addition of new colleges will defy this pattern. In fact, it is especially important that it do so, lest students who feel excluded by the system as it stands be further excluded from public discussion.

Personally, I will be moving off campus next year. I like the residential college system, but I’d rather define my own identity based on a community of my choosing. I hope that continued discussion about current and future Yale policies will make the distinction between detrimental self-segregation and merely choosing one’s friends.

Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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