Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

December 6, 2000:
Invading My Space
The new meaning of community

by Richard Cummings '59

"Community 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.

Richard Cummings is the author of the play Soccer Moms From Hell, recently produced at the Theatre-Studio in New York.