When I first started quarantining, well over a year ago, I felt like I had been bowled over in a modernized Danteen hellish landscape. Not one of the deepest circles, where you’re frozen in ice and someone gnaws at your head. Just one of the upper benevolent spheres, where you wander aimlessly between your desk and the refrigerator, endlessly refreshing the New York Times home page. As usual, but on top of that.
What I felt was the strange lived experience of reverse: this literary device – famous employee in Dante Hell – where the suffering of a sinner imitates the nature of his sin. Let the punishment match the crime.
Before COVID-19 hit, modern life had already left us atomized, uprooted, addicted to our smartphones. Over the past year, that life has ironically intensified: we have spent our days locked in our one-bedroom apartments, every human connection mediated by a screen, torn from our communities.
The college classroom was no exception. Just weeks after the start of the pandemic, higher education Jeremias were already prophesying a world in which a Brady Bunch of jerky, pixelated faces would become a permanent educational standard. But despite the tribulations of the past year, I came away reassured that liberal residential education never be completely supplanted by e-learning. Screens simply cannot offer what students are looking for: the chance to live and learn with their peers in tight-knit educational communities.
I have made a career of co-creating educational communities, first at Deep Springs College, then with my own nonprofit, Tidelines Institute (formerly the Arete Project), which runs similar shorter duration programs. By tearing apart such communities, COVID-19 has highlighted their immense value. The pandemic, it seems, will pass. As we begin to think about the fall semester, now It’s time to reinvent and reinvigorate educational communities when the doors of the academy finally reopen.
What is an educational community? Part of it is a social community, as it can happen in a dormitory or a sports team. But it is also an intellectual community, with a dynamic life outside the classroom. The educational community opens up from the classroom to personal relationships, extracurricular, work, meals: lived together and oriented towards learning.
The educational community is the best thing a residential college has to offer. The two together prove that education is not just about mastery of content, but the growth of the human being as a whole. Although I am happy to remember a few things about The Divine Comedy, the truth is, I forgot a lot of material from my undergraduate years. It’s not that the content wasn’t important. It is because he played the role of second violin in the vibrant world of inquiry, debate, experimentation and social relations that have gathered around him. In college, I shared this world with a small group of peers and professors. The academic content provided a substrate and sustenance, but it was within the community that my education took place. This is where I grew up.
This is what so many young people are looking for in their college experience. That’s why every college tour guide speaks convincingly about these ramblings all night long about the meaning of life they enjoy with their roommate. This is why a former student of an intensive humanities program advised incoming students to forgo the 1 p.m. class: so that the cohort discussions started in class can continue over lunch and early after. midday.
And that is precisely what online education will never supplant. Administrators charting a post-pandemic path for their institutions would do well to consider both the scientific evidence and the financial prognosis in favor of educational communities. Substantial research links tight-knit cohorts to a range of positive learning outcomes, including literacy and critical thinking gains, improved performance in STEM courses, and perseverance in college. Online education, on the other hand, can often be associated with higher attrition rate, larger success gaps and widespread student dissatisfaction. And for numbers lovers, while the price of online education can have immediate financial appeal, alumni donations are dismal among online education beneficiaries. Alumni donate to places where they have created memories, formed friendships, and made the transition to adulthood with their peers. (Deep Springs, for example, has an enviable alumni donation rate of almost 50 percent.)
It is true that Deep Springs and Tidelines Institute are outliers, striving to bring the educational community to its most vital embodiment. We did this by creating small islands where a small number of inhabitants – students, staff and faculty – participate equally in shared work and a shared world. While not completely abjuring hierarchy or division of labor, any member of the community can chair a hiring committee or swing a hammer, analyze Hegel, analyze data, or lead a camping trip.
These two institutions exist outside of the “normal” academy, but they offer courses that can be adapted for traditional colleges. Indeed, many institutions already offer educational communities of one kind or another. For those who don’t – or want to create more – here are some general precepts.
- Cohorts are essential. Educational communities must be porous but made up of a dense network of relationships. It must be possible for individuals to really know each other. Six could be a minimum size, while 50 could be a maximum.
- Students must share a lasting intellectual experience. The content itself can vary widely but should include at least one ongoing course, ideally for a minimum of a year. Directed studies at Yale University is one example.
- Experiential opportunities work wonders. They strengthen relationships with students, forge community identity, and help students integrate theory and practice. Wild nature and civilization at the University of Montana effectively coupled substantive courses and outdoor exploration.
- Diversity is a necessity. Educational communities are at serious risk: that students may self-select from groups of peers who look alike, think and act alike. But peer learning is crucial in such communities, which means students have to come with different backgrounds and beliefs.
- … but not always. Some students thrive in communities where they share common stories with their peers. This is especially true for students from marginalized backgrounds, for whom a strong community can be a deciding factor in college perseverance. the ScHOLA²RS House at the University of Connecticut offers one of many excellent models.
- The shared meals are excellent. The shared living space is even better.
Educational communities do not need to be totalizing; after all, it’s not The secret story. They can include French majors and physics majors, football stars, climate change activists and classical pianists. They can manifest in the form of formal programs like those mentioned above or, more simply, they can occur spontaneously.
I know how great it is to create a new program. Faculty members without this bandwidth can still cultivate educational communities. They can encourage seminars to adjourn directly to lunch or coffee where conversations can continue informally. They may advise students to set up directed readings with a handful of their peers. They can connect students with similar interests. And, where formal programs exist, they can point students in the right direction.
The pandemic has shown us how precious and necessary educational communities are. Nowhere else in modern life do we have the spaces and structures that can support such communities, and believe me, I watched. They are the product and the pride of residential colleges alone. When we finally get out of this mundane hell, let’s be ready to help them thrive.