A College Is a Community but Cannot Be a Home

Campus life is too diverse at most schools for dorms to serve as a place of respite from uncomfortable ideas.

A student in his college dorm room on campus
Jae C. Hong / AP

Last week, I got an email from Decker O’Donnell, an economics major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He was troubled by my claim that dorm life at residential colleges cannot be like home. “We live there 30 weeks a year,” he wrote. “I know people with abusive or homophobic families who couch-surf in the summer.”

College, he observed, “is the only home they have.”

There is, of course, a subset of college students whose troubled home lives cause them to feel more comfortable on campus than in the households where they grew up, and the escape that higher education affords them is very much worth celebrating. But those cases are not the core of O’Donnell’s disagreement with me.

By way of background, I wrote about home during last year’s controversy at Yale, when students protested the faculty-in-residence at Silliman College after his wife sent an email that upset them. She argued that Yale undergrads, not administrators, should shape the norms around what Halloween costumes are appropriate. “As master,” a student retorted, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”

My response back then wasn’t quite that college shouldn’t be like home––defined here as a place of respite from ideas that one finds uncomfortable––but that it cannot be:

Alan Jacobs of Baylor University published one of the more insightful posts on this aspect of the controversy, observing that any Yale student seeking an environment akin to a home is bound to be disappointed, because their residential colleges are, by design, places where “people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space,” he added, “though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship.”

Most homes, I added, are places where parents try to instill their own values in children whose formative experiences they shape. Insofar as Yale includes students from many diverse homes, it will be unlike an actual home. Learning to live away from home by tolerating difference, like ideas one disagrees with, is part of campus life.

My correspondent felt that my argument betrayed a failure to understand his generation. “I'm a regular social media and in-class arguer against people who are being racist, queer-phobic, etc,” O’Donnell wrote. “I like explaining why it's bad and trying to change their minds. But it's exhausting. Sometimes I want to go home and not have to deal with that. When asking for a home, they're not asking that their every whim be catered to, but that they have one place they don't have to constantly be on guard. One where they can take a break from the exhausting work of speaking out for what you believe in. Obviously, Yale students and others have overreached, but you should acknowledge the genuine concerns behind what these students are saying.”

He added that “condescending or reductionist discourse about millennials by older generations can feed into perceptions many of us already have about older generations.”

But the belief that college dorms cannot be “like home” for most students is not rooted in a reductionist notion of who millennials are––it is rooted in an expansive one. It flows from the belief that today’s college students are a hugely diverse population, perhaps more so than at any other time in the history of higher education.

For my correspondent, home is a place free from language that he regards as racist or queer-phobic—and it is a respite from related debates that he finds exhausting.

I have no objection to that conception of home.

But surely college dorms must include classmates who agree that bigotry is wrong yet inevitably reach different judgments about what specifically is problematic. Surely it must include students as eager to engage their classmates in residence-hall debates as O’Donnell is to debate classmates on social media or in the classroom (where some would surely prefer a stress-free environment sans call-outs).

Imagine a student who grew up in an extended family where everyone gathered each evening around the dinner table, conversed about the thorniest problems of the day, and always felt more free to express themselves at home than at work or at school. A person with that background might find a taboo around debates to be exhausting. They might even believe that it’s especially vital to discuss racism in informal, face-to-face settings where students lower their guard and bad ideas are aired and refuted, and comparatively ineffective to fight racism by trying to police social media.

Put Decker O’Donnell in a dorm room or group suite with an individual like that and at least one of them will find the environment unlike home as they conceive of it.

What feels like a “safe space” to one person can feel stifling or even “unsafe” to another. A sex-positive feminist may want to decorate her dorm door with a poster from a provocative art exhibition. An evangelical Christian across the hall might not feel “at home” seeing graphic images each morning upon leaving her dorm room. Yet forbid the feminist artist from decorating her door as she sees fit and she will find the space she inhabits seems less like home. The whole standard is untenable.

And I worry that some progressive college students are missing this inherent untenability by unconsciously proceeding as if there is a right to feel at home in college, but only for those with a “correct” or “enlightened” view of what home should be.

I do think residential colleges owe something to students who live on campus; that many residential colleges fall short of meeting their obligations to certain kinds of students; and that careful attention is owed when grievances about a hostile climate are expressed, whether by black students at Yale or women at the University of Montana or any subset of students who are treated unfairly, from historically marginalized groups to the fraternity brothers falsely accused of rape at UVA.

But clarity about what those obligations are and how best to meet them requires rejecting home as a lodestar. My correspondent has the best of intentions. But I fear that the best that could come of his framework is a place where students who share his ideology and temperament are very comfortable… and everyone else is not. Insofar as some aspects of home, like an environment free of racism, ought to be lodestars, it is because of their independent value, not because they are home-like.

My correspondent senses a dearth of empathy in my rejections of college as home. But I think it is perfectly consistent to have deep empathy for college students, remembering what a difficult time of life college can be; to desire their flourishing; and to believe that most would be ill-served if college administrators acceded to demands to create a campus home as O’Donnell and the Yale student define it.

After all, a feature common to most undergrads who live “on campus” at college––a tiny, disproportionately privileged fraction of all college students––is inexperience. For some, total immersion in an environment uncomfortably different from any they have known before is what expands their notions of where they might flourish, their limits, and what they should do after college. I don’t have any fixed idea of how best to balance the competing goods of comfort and uncomfortable challenge, or any illusion that there is one right answer that applies universally.

But among my 30-something peers, I have so many friends and acquaintances, across the full diversity of identity groups, who regard the collegiate periods that were least like home––the semester abroad, the challenging roommate, the residence hall where it was forbidden to speak their native language, and yes, the late-night dorm debates with folks whose viewpoints they found offensive––as the times that most contributed to their education, their growth, and their later flourishing.

Today’s students are no less capable of benefitting from the discomfort of leaving home. Administrators shaping their campuses shouldn’t underestimate their resilience.