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The Fierce Varieties of Men

[The New York Times] — Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes this week about the decline of print newspapers and the rise of personalized news services that can deliver stories to your desktop about only those things that already interest you. “Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me,” notes Kristof. “And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.”

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information—but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

One classic study sent mailings to Republicans and Democrats, offering them various kinds of political research, ostensibly from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.

There was also modest interest in receiving manifestly silly arguments for the other party’s views (we feel good when we can caricature the other guys as dunces). But there was little interest in encountering solid arguments that might undermine one’s own position.

What does this have to do with the Collegiate Way? It provides further support—yes, I know there’s an ironic tinge there—for the importance of fully cross-sectional residential colleges, as opposed to thematic housing where like-minded people are all placed together.

Harvard’s Abbott Lawrence Lowell understood this very point when he advanced an early argument for the establishment of a cross-sectional house system at Harvard—a house system that was needed, he felt, because the campus had grown too large:

Character and self-reliance are more developed by being a man of mark in Ravenna than by belonging to the mob in Rome; and, what is more to our purpose, a body that is too large for general personal acquaintance tends to break up into groups whose members see little of one another. The citizen of a good-sized town has usually a wider acquaintance than the dweller in a big city.

In a similar vein, David Foster of Photon Courier recently called my attention to a passage in G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics that makes the same point eloquently:

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

“We get distorted ideas of people we don’t spend time with,” said my colleague Carl Trindle, the former principal of Brown College at the University of Virginia. That’s something we know intuitively, and research shows it’s true. The great virtue of a cross-sectional residential college whose members have been chosen randomly—by the divine luck of things—is that it gives everyone a chance to spend time with people of every kind—“the teacher, the student, the old, the young, the poetic, the prosaic, the bold, the shy, the clever, the plodding, the careless, the careful, the wealthy, the poor, the cold, the compassionate, the indolent, the industrious, the neurotic, the peaceful, the refined, the vulgar, the emotional, the analytical, the earnest, the satirical”—more pied beauty, more colors, than in any tartan.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021