a PAW web exclusive column
Invading My Space
meaning of community
by Richard Cummings '59
for me, is more students than it is faculty. I see faculty in [Frist],
and I feel like they're kind of invading my space." So said
Shaka Smith, a Princeton sophomore, as quoted in "A Sense of
Belonging" by Alex Rawson '01 (PAW October 25, 2000.) What
then, is community? Is it defined by exclusion or inclusion?
The Frist Campus Center
is nonexclusionary, a radical departure for an institution known
primarily for its exclusivity. "We are family," it shouts,
in the manner of Sly and the Family Stone. But that is precisely
the problem. Community is first and foremost "a unified body
of individuals," (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary,
12th edition) from the Latin "communitas." In this respect,
Princeton is now, in many respects, a mirror image of the U.S. The
old Princeton, small, all-male, WASP, was a community. But if you
weren't one of "us," it could be a very cold place.
Casting off its exclusionary
ethos, Princeton now is a model of pluralism. And contrary to myth,
it is far more democratic than Harvard, the great poseur of liberal
academia. Just let a woman try to get into one of the final clubs
and see what happens. As for faculty, undergraduates at Harvard
see graduate teaching assistants almost exclusively. The great professors
might as well be on Mars. At Princeton, you can just pop into a
super prof's office and engage her.
But all this talk of
community is really pointless. As the late Clinton Rosssiter explained,
there is a big difference between organic and mechanistic change.
You cannot legislate community; it is something that must evolve,
primarily through interaction and identification. Too bad that Shaka
Smith feels that faculty are alien beings, but this is something
that academic intellectuals have brought on themselves. The students
are far less politically correct than the faculty. American intellectuals
lack ebullience; they would make any fun-loving undergraduate want
to run for cover. But if a disheveled Einstein were to wander into
Frist, he would soon be surrounded by intrigued students who could
tell instantly that he identified with them.
Speaking in Washington,
D.C., to an enthusiastic crowd of ten thousand cheering people at
the end of the presidential campaign, Green Party candidate Ralph
Nader '55 invoked the German philosopher, Martin Heiddeger. Heidegger
said that what makes us human beings is the fact that we care for
each other. It is this that coporate America is destroying, Nader
insisted. But corporate America makes us rich, and is the source
of much of the wealth that makes Prinecton rich enough to be so
diverse. Corporate America, though, creates artificial community,
the community of consumers. And Princeton is no exception. The students
have no real organic sense of connection to Princeton; they are
consumers of liberal education in the pursuit of upward mobility.
So they, too, are to blame for the humorless, antiseptic environment
that Princeton has become.
Heidegger argued in Being
And Time that our sense of "being," (our humanity,
in fact) is derived from our appreciation of "time." Humans
are the only creatures on earth that understand that they are going
to die, that our existence as individuals is finite. Because of
this, human beings are able to see the necessity of caring for each
other. It is this caring that enables us to transcend the limits
of time by creating a common sense of being in which individuals
become part of the greater organic whole. At its best, this is precisely
what a university is capable of doing. All the knowledge, all the
teaching, is part of the process, or should be.
But Heidegger prophetically
also understood that the enemies of the "being" that is
created by the sense of "time" are technology and mass
culture. This is so because these things create the illusion that
time is limitless. The very instruments that are supposedly capable
of creating the "global village," do the exact opposite.
The anomie that one experiences at Princeton today, in spite of
its great achievements, has to do with the invasion of mass culture
and the intrustion of high tech. If you sit for hours in front of
your computer, even to enjoy the hilarious farce of "Queer
Duck," you become less and less a candidate for community.
The sense of "being" that is the essence of our humanity
is eradicated in the cyber world. Throw out the Internet? Never.
It has too many good uses. But don't deify it. Mass culture? There
is no getting rid of it, but make healthy fun of it in the resurrection
of the medieval sense of carnival.
The Nude Olympics, now
banished, was a misguided attempt to break out of the anomie. It
was, at heart, a Puritanical excercise of futility. What Princeton
needs are festivals, the kind that football weekends can never be.
Put F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 to rest, once and for all, and usher
in the new age of Rabelais. Then, you will have community in the
best sense of the word. The whole stupid business of the drinking
age could be chucked if binge drinking, the curse of campus Puritanism,
could be replaced by responsible pleasure and the automobile parked
outside campus limits. When students and faculty can sit around
a table, enjoying each other's company and a good bottle of wine,
there will be no need for articles like this.
Cummings is the author of the play Soccer Moms From Hell,
recently produced at the Theatre-Studio in New York.