Garrison Keillor Understands Residential Colleges
26 November 2005 (collegiateway.org) — Many readers of the Collegiate Way website will also be admirers of the popular and long-running radio program “A Prairie Home Companion,” hosted by Garrison Keillor on National Public Radio. For those who haven’t heard it, the show is a delightful weekly mix of music, story-telling, and humor, and from its headquarters in Minneapolis it often makes excursions to other cities and towns across the country.
This weekend’s program was hosted at Michigan State University, and one of the brief guests was the university’s new president, Lou Anna Simon. In the minute or two during which the university was acknowledged, the principal thing mentioned was its new residential college for the humanities, which Simon described as like what students would find “at one of the elite brand name” universities. But while I’m sure this development at MSU is going to be better than the generic dormitory housing you would find at most large universities, the new residential college being developed at MSU is not like those found in older residential college systems: it’s a theme hall for arts and humanities students. Very perceptively, Keillor, who is a writer and entertainer rather than an educator, picked up on this immediately. Drawing on one of the show’s long-running jokes, he asked Simon, “Do I really want to live with other English majors?”
Theme halls, where all the English majors live together, or all the science students, or all the humanities students, or all the athletes, do the opposite of what a real cross-sectional residential college does: they segregate rather than integrate, and they deprive students of the opportunity to learn from people who think differently.