Pondering the nature of community

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

I recently had an enlightening conversation with my residence fellow about community building and the difficulty of creating communities at schools like Stanford. After the conversation, I began thinking: of all the leading issues here at Stanford like relationship abuse and mental health, the root of all of them appears to be a lack of social cohesion and trust - a lack of community.

For an almost entirely residential school, Stanford lacks the close connections between students that are the basis of a strong community. There are of course small pockets of community, but as a whole, there are few things we all share together besides a simple identification with the school itself.

Perhaps we should not be surprised considering the sources of this social fragmentation. It begins with the high degree of connectivity of our generation, and especially among Stanford students. I and others have gone through entire meals without saying a word because we have pressing business to attend to on our mobile phones. Even social networking does not build a true community, instead providing students a wider but weaker virtual community unconnected with their everyday lives.

Connectivity, though, can only partially explain our social fragmentation. The other half is the lack of shared experiences that underpins the development of any community. At one point, there was a limited set of majors available, with a common curriculum for all students. The buzzword in education today though is individualization - from building our own majors to choosing one of the eighty possible combinations of IHUM courses. We simply cannot form any kind of intellectual community when the shared basis of that community does not exist.

These two trends are not inexorable - we can reduce social fragmentation with effort. I believe the question before our generation is relatively simple: do we want to live lives of independence or lives of community?

There is a sacrifice of the personal in the creation of community. We can either focus on building our individuality and create a wide but weak social network, or we can build strong communities that undermine the primacy of the individual. Perhaps these two are not mutually exclusive, but they are certainly difficult to accomplish simultaneously.

If we do choose to move toward community, we will need to take specific actions to incubate the community that we seek. There are a host of options, but it all starts with some level of sacrifice. Perhaps it is our time, perhaps it is our freedom, but every community is predicated on forgoing something personal for the good of the whole. This sacrifice, of course, is not a losing proposition. The benefits of the community should outweigh the small loss of a sacrifice, and thus, an attitude of service is the foundation necessary to build a community.

From that foundation, there are multiple avenues to build different types of communities. To create a social community, there has to be an ongoing shared experience. Activities like going to a movie, or perhaps a theater production or a sports event allow for a common experience that builds ties of social cohesion. When these events occur may not always be convenient - again, there is some level of sacrifice in building a community. There are also the persistent connections that can be created just through conversation - deep and meaningful conversations can create lasting relationships.

If our goal is to create an intellectual community, we need to put together shared intellectual experiences beyond merely taking the same curriculum. Reading the same newspapers, creating book discussions and sharing diverse ideas can all help build a strong community of scholars. This type of community is certainly not easy to create - the investment requires a fairly high level of engagement. Yet, an intellectual community can create a unique scholastic fulfillment that no class can itself provide.

Finally, creating a residential community requires perhaps the least work, and yet remains one of the most difficult to accomplish. Opening doors, walking around, meeting new people - not difficult by any measure, yet each requires an activation energy to get started. Make it a personal mission to meet one person in your dorm that you have not met each week.

We live in a world with a lower level of community than before, but it does not have to be this way. A little sacrifice, some good humor, and a little disconnection from the technology of the day may lead to some of the most cherished moments during college. It certainly has for me.