COVID has demonstrated the immense value of higher education communities (opinion)
COVID has demonstrated the immense value of higher education communities (opinion)

When I first began to quarantine, now well more than a year ago, I felt as though I’d been upended into some modernized Dantean hellscape. Not one of the deeper circles, where you’re frozen in ice and someone is gnawing on your head. Just one of the benignly malign upper spheres, where you wander aimlessly between your desk and the fridge, endlessly refreshing the New York Times homepage. Just like normal, only more so.

What I felt was the uncanny lived experience of contrapasso: that literary device -- famously employed in Dante’s Inferno -- where a sinner’s suffering mimics the nature of her sin. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Before COVID-19 hit, modern life had already left us atomized, rootless, addicted to our smartphones. Over the past year, that life has become ironically intensified: we have spent our days shut inside our single-bedroom apartments, all human connection mediated by a screen, ripped from our communities.

The college classroom has been no exception. Only a few weeks into the pandemic, the Jeremiahs of higher education were already prophesying a world in which a Brady Bunch of jerky, pixelated faces would become a permanent pedagogical norm. But despite the tribulations of the past year, I’ve emerged reassured that liberal, residential education will never be wholly supplanted by online learning. Screens just can’t offer what students are seeking: the chance to live and learn with peers in close-knit educational communities.

I have made a career of co-creating educational communities, first at Deep Springs College and then with my own nonprofit, Tidelines Institute (formerly the Arete Project), which runs similar programs of shorter duration. By tearing such communities asunder, COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief their immense value. The pandemic, it seems, will pass. So as we start thinking toward the fall semester, now is the time to reimagine and reinvigorate educational communities for when the gates of academe finally reopen.

What is an educational community? In part it’s a social community, as might arise within a dorm or athletic team. But it’s an intellectual community, too, one with a vibrant life outside the classroom. The educational community opens out from the classroom into personal relationships, extracurriculars, work, meals: lived together and oriented toward learning.

Educational community is the very best thing that that the residential college offers. The two together prove that education is not just about content mastery but the growth of the whole human being. While I’m glad I remember a couple things about The Divine Comedy, the truth is that I’ve forgotten a lot of material from my undergrad days. It’s not that the content wasn’t important. It’s that it played second fiddle to the vibrant world of inquiry, debate, experiment and social relationships that coalesced around it. In college, I shared that world with a small cadre of peers and professors. Academic content provided substrate and sustenance, but it was within the community that my education took place. It’s where I grew up.

This is what so many young people seek in their college experience. This is why every college tour guide speaks winningly of those all-night meaning-of-life ramblings they enjoy with their roommate. This is why one alum of an intensive humanities program advised incoming students to forgo 1 p.m. classes: so that cohort discussions begun in the classroom could continue over lunch and through the early afternoon.

And this is precisely what online education will never supplant. Administrators charting a post-pandemic course for their institutions would do well to heed both the scholarly evidence and financial prognostications in favor of educational communities. Substantial research links close-knit cohorts with an array of positive learning outcomes, including literacy and critical thinking gains, improved performance in STEM courses, and college persistence. Online education, meanwhile, can often be associated with higher attrition, larger achievement gaps and widespread student dissatisfaction. And for the number crunchers out there, while the price point of online education may have an immediate financial appeal, alumni giving is dismal among recipients of online education. Alumni donate to the places where they made memories, formed friendships and navigated the transition to adulthood together with their peers. (Deep Springs, for example, has an enviable alumni giving rate nearing 50 percent.)

Deep Springs and Tidelines Institute are admittedly outliers, striving to bring the educational community to its most vital incarnation. We’ve done it by creating little islands where a tiny number of inhabitants -- students, staff and faculty members -- participate equally in shared work and a shared world. While not wholly abjuring hierarchy or division of labor, any community member might chair a hiring committee or swing a hammer, parse Hegel, analyze data, or lead a camping trip.

Those two institutions exist outside “normal” academe, but they offer lessons that can be adapted for traditional colleges. Indeed, many institutions already offer educational communities of one kind or another. For those that don’t -- or that wish to create more -- here are a few general precepts.

  • Cohorts are key. Educational communities should be porous but composed of a network of thick relationships. It must be possible for individuals to really know one another. Six might be a minimum size, while 50 might be a maximum.
  • Students must share an enduring intellectual experience. The content itself can vary widely but should include at least one course running, ideally, for a year at minimum. Directed Studies at Yale University is one such example.
  • Experiential opportunities work wonders. They strengthen student relationships, forge community identity and help students integrate theory and practice. Wilderness & Civilization at the University of Montana has effectively coupled substantive coursework and outdoor exploration.
  • Diversity is a necessity. Educational communities run a grave risk: that students might self-select into peer groups that look, think and act alike. But peer learning is crucial in such communities, which means students must come bearing different backgrounds and beliefs.
  • … but not always. Some students flourish most in communities where they share common stories with their peers. That is particularly true for students coming from marginalized backgrounds, for whom a strong community can be a deciding factor in college persistence. The ScHOLA²RS House at the University of Connecticut offers one of many excellent models.
  • Shared meals are great. Shared living space is even better.

Educational communities don’t need to be totalizing; after all, this is not The Secret History. They can include French majors and physics majors, soccer stars, climate change activists, and classical pianists. They can manifest as formal programs like those mentioned above or, easiest of all, they can arise spontaneously.

I know what a huge lift it is to create a new program. Faculty members without that bandwidth can still cultivate educational communities. They can encourage seminars to adjourn directly to lunch or coffee where conversations can continue informally. They can advise students to set up directed readings with a handful of their peers. They can connect students with similar interests to one another. And, when formal programs do exist, they can steer students in the right direction.

The pandemic has shown us how precious educational communities are, and how necessary. Nowhere else in modern life do we have the spaces and structures that can support such communities, and believe me, I’ve looked. They are the product and the pride of residential colleges alone. When we finally emerge from this banal inferno, let’s be ready to help them flourish.



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