Schools love to tout how many committees, clubs, and co-curricular activities they offer. The bigger and sexier the school, the more exotic and diverse the offerings. Philosophy club. Poetry club. Science club. Chess club. Feminist club. Finance club. PETA club. Social Justice club. And so on. Increasingly, grassroots committees provide support for marginalized groups, and students rallying attention to social or political causes. This is especially true on college campuses, where activist groups can find support, meaning, and fellowship among other students who share the same interests, concerns, and aspirations. This is all good; what’s not to like?
There’s nothing not to like. But there’s something missing. The exponential rise of committees and clubs have made schools more inclusive places, but this trend has also narrowed and isolated the forms of interaction available on campus. There are lots of conversations taking place among like minded people, but less engagement among those with differing views.
And there’s a cost. As students develop stronger ties, they may also weaken affiliations to those outside a narrow cultural, political, or social category. When separation between groups and committees widen, campus life can devolve into a set of self reinforcing ideological cliques. Students may have more options to become members of a group, but this membership places few real demands on critical thinking and civic engagement. Group identity may intensify, but democratic community declines
Schools (and students) must do more than simply create new committees for every kind of social, cultural, or political need. That’s easy. What’s harder is establishing shared understandings among those with differing and sometimes conflicting affiliations and aspirations. Community is not just about developing strong ties; it’s about recognizing the value of weak ties, the links that connect us with those who don’t inhabit our immediate social space. See Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” for more.
Diversity of options is good, but not as an end in itself. A school doesn’t become a democratic community by finding ways for each student to feel validated, but by practicing deliberative and collaborative forms of engagement on issues that bear on the experiences of each community member. This is what the phrase “common good” means; people coming together to interrogate issues of moral, social, or political concern, and cultivating shared understandings (if not agreement) in the process. There’s no other way to satisfy the ideal of democratic community, then by creating venues for groups and committees to momentarily set side their affiliations, and partake in constructive dialogue with those whose cultures, perspectives, and prejudices differ.
This is where Town Hall comes in. Town Hall provides a setting for community building, collaborative decision making, and moral inquiry. Structured appropriately, the experience provides a framework for constructive engagement between different groups. But it’s also an opportunity to see everyone speaking to each other, working together, and settling differences in a public manner. The more Town Hall happens, the better people become at it, and they more they eventually embrace the educational and social value of participation.