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A Recipe For Community

Guest Column Jeff Roberts

I want to talk about community. As you all surely know, “community” is a buzzword that’s being thrown around rather often at MIT, almost as often as “hosage” and “A=B=C=P” (which is more of a buzz-equation, I guess). From the community leg of the educational triad proposed by the Task Force on Student Life and Learning to the “community of love” endorsed by UA President Matthew L. McGann ’00, people from around MIT have been hailing “community” as the best way to strengthen the campus. Simply, MIT would be a better place to live and learn if there were a little more community.

Now is where you should ask, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Or if you’re not fond of cursing, you’d phrase it, “What the heck it that supposed to mean?” But with cursing or without, you realize that the solution can’t be as easy as “add community and stir vigorously,” for someone has to explain how community can be created. This isn’t easy. In fact, people have been trying to create community for a long time now through neighborhood planning and the like. Lots of people have found success by finding good communities and copying their features, but for of all these very smart people, and all their various theories, there is no single agreed-upon explanation of exactly how to make community work. There is no Fundamental Theorem of Community (which makes it especially difficult for people at MIT to deal with). But I have been thinking a bit about community myself, and I’ve come up with two really obvious conclusions that I thought I’d share with you now.

1. Community exists where people say it does, and it doesn’t exist where people say it doesn’t. Just think about it. Go to a neighborhood where everyone says “There’s a lot of community here,” and try to tell them, “No, you’re wrong. I don’t see any community here at all.” Similarly, if you talk to MIT students who say “I hate how there’s no sense of community here,” it really doesn’t make sense to tell them that there really is a sense of community, they’re just not, well, sensing it.

2. Community involves some idea of likeness. I see some community around this campus, but in the form of many small communities instead of a larger one. Living groups and academic departments become communities because their members feel they share common ground. Those many of us who can say “I live in Baker House” or those few of us who can say “I’m in Course 11” can more easily relate to others who say the same thing because they have a common interest. If you think about it, why do people like to hang out with other people and not with antelope? Obviously, it’s because people and antelope have very different interests, and their lives are not affected by the same things.

What do these two conclusions mean for MIT? First of all, it means that all we have to do to create community is to convince people that it exists. Perfect. But how do we do that? We could try to find out how to make people feel that they are like other people around here in some way. We have to show people what it is that we MIT students have in common (and I think we all know what that is, don’t we?). If we are successful, what we will be hearing is “I’m an MIT student, and yes, we have a lot of community at MIT.” Maybe we can even make it into a song. But that’s not important. What’s important is that community might actually seem very hard because it is, in reality, very easy.

So I’ll finish by reminding everyone of one important thing: you can’t spell “community” without M-I-T.