Communities teach tolerance

D.J. Johnson (“Dorm communities cause segregation,” Feb. 4) gets some things right and others very wrong in his trenchant critique of the University’s residential learning communities. He ventures into some complicated territory, but it is important ground, given the inter-group challenges and conflicts we face as a world.

The author concludes that Residence Life, in promoting themed living-learning communities, has its priorities wrong, that diversification, not exclusive communities, should be the goal. I can envision a large cauldron of humanity mixing in the residence halls, academic departments, towns and cities, large banquet rooms and store fronts where folks of all ages, stripes and colors congregate to loud music that drowns out our differences.

I don’t think that vision is workable or clear. Where Mr. Johnson fails is in his tendency to overgeneralize, to draw conclusions without doing his research, and to not see the difference between functional, healthy groups that cross lines of divisive insider-outsider conflict, and those that, like the KKK, teach intolerance and hate, that inbreed their own arrogance and self-interest, that are racist, sexist, classist, etc.

If Mr. Johnson had done his research, he would discover that first year students, especially, need small communities that give them confidence and skills to go out into the larger world (beyond the fraternity, the learning community, the particular major) to practice those skills. That’s why most residential learning communities, here and at hundreds of other universities, primarily focus on first years (and that’s why they’re a growth industry).

The first year students need those communities so they can find a place to belong, and so that they can learn to experience and practice tolerance, diversity and respect for those who are different. All specialized communities we choose to belong to, whether they be Greek organizations, academic departments and majors, religious groups or hobby clubs, can be inward and intolerant in spirit, exclusively cultivating the sense that they have a corner on the right way, or they can practice their trade in a spirit of open collaboration and interaction with the outside world.

Chapman, like hundreds of other living-learning communities nationwide, seeks to provide a smarter and more engaged way to learn: smaller classes connected to other classes with co-curricular events that enrich students’ education. Astin’s research at UCLA demonstrates that students more effectively develop tolerance and respect for others when they interact closely with a small set of peers and a dedicated faculty who get to know them as individuals. It starts at home, so to speak; build a base, and then all of us can go forth and propagate the love in what President Ribeau calls principled citizenship.

Maybe, if we could get it right here, with smaller groups that practice cooperation with and respect for other groups, that treat the Earth with respect, that learn about the desperate needs of others (consider the millions dying of AIDS in Africa), there would be a lesson on Iraq. Maybe some of us reenact in the larger world our more selfish and myopic habits at home. Maybe international conflict stems from a set of our values that push exclusiveness, control, competition and unlimited, unsustainable growth. Maybe small and morally principled communities are our best bet for managing the larger world, because, as we all know, it takes a village to raise a college student.

Thomas Klein is an English Professor and Director of the Chapman Community.