In reading Steven Engler’s “College system limits strongest friendships” (2/6), I must admit that my first response was one of amusement. My twin sister attends Harvard, and several weeks ago she called me to get some information for an op-ed piece defending her own housing system. The Harvard system has been under attack since the comprehensive Harvard College Curricular Review Report, released in April 2004, included an item recommending that Harvard switch over to Yale-style housing. The debate has raged since then within Cambridge dorm rooms and on the pages of The Harvard Crimson, with strong opinions supporting both systems.
While Engler does mention some criticisms of the Harvard system, he concludes that it is superior because it favors the formation of lasting friendships. These lasting friendships, he says, are the result of the freedom to live with one’s “best friends.” Yet it is precisely the necessity to formally define one’s “best friends” at the end of freshman year that produces the major social flaw in a Harvard-style housing system. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the blocking group.
A blocking group is a group of one to eight freshmen, men and women, who put their names down on a slip of paper declaring that they wish to be in the same college (or “house” as our Cantab brethren refer to them). Each blocking group is randomly sorted into a different house, although if one blockmate has a relative who attended Harvard, there is a chance, not a guarantee, that the group will be put into that relative’s house.
It sounds simple enough, but anyone who has ever had trouble forming a suite at Yale can appreciate that forming a blocking group is 10 times worse. Blocking decisions take on a much greater significance than rooming decisions. These are the people who will comprise your major social group not for one year but for the remainder of your college career. Moreover, you cannot tell someone you do not want to block with her because she is messy, wakes up too early or plays loud music. Blocking groups are based on purely social considerations, so simply put, if you do not want to block with someone, it is because you do not like him as much as you like someone else. The only exception is that since Cantabs tend to think of blocking groups as discrete social units, rather than simply groups of friends, a person might be excluded because she is not good for the overall social dynamic.
Let us imagine a Harvard-style blocking system introduced at Yale. You arrive in New Haven your freshman year ready to make friends, impress professors, and, who knows, maybe even find your blocking group. You spend your time until January forming friendships (on the Facebook as well as in person), and wondering who among all these people will have the privilege to be your blockmates. In January, your group of 14 friends starts discussing possible blocking combinations. By March you have a blocking group of eight and are not talking to six of your formerly “best” friends. By April you are proud new members of Calhoun College.
You may think that the worst of the blocking saga is over, but in truth, it has only just begun. What if you find that the bonds you formed during Directed Studies or freshman orgo do not hold up once you start getting adequate amounts of sleep? What if the two blockmates who were romantically attached split up, splitting the group at the same time? What if you find that as you grow and mature, your friendships change, and not necessarily for the better?
A Harvard-style system puts enormous significance on the relationships formed in the first seven months of college, and establishes a social order based not on colleges but on blocking groups. As Adam Goldenberg pointed out in a Crimson opinion piece, “Upperclassmen have no reason or incentive to venture out of their blocking groups to interact with their Housemates and, as a consequence, few do” (“Blocked Out,” 9/21/05). If you have the opportunity to live, eat, study and sleep with your seven “best friends,” why bother doing so with anyone else? The blocking group becomes the be-all and end-all of social life, and colleges become amalgams of cliquey blocking groups rather than coherent and unified communities.
I do not mean to say that the housing system at Yale is better than that at Harvard. As I noted at the beginning of this column, my sister is a strong supporter of the basic structure of the Harvard system, and the differences between the schools may very well warrant similar differences in their housing systems. But if we want to make an argument for the social possibilities that the Harvard system offers, we must recognize that those possibilities result in a painful and difficult process whose ramifications ultimately limit the ability to meet new people.
Marta Herschkopf is a senior in Calhoun College.