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Reimagining Community

By David King, Associate Editor of the Clerkand Maurice Rippel, Students’ Council Co-President

[Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author]

On February 17th, Haverford will gather for its annual Spring Plenary, an event central to the continuing function of the Honor Code.  But Plenary represents more than that; Plenary is one of the longstanding traditions of Haverford, a tradition that has brought people together around issues of contemporary importance to the campus. Historically, it has been a space which has advocated for the admission of women to the College, and supported measures toward inclusivity such as last Spring’s special plenary resolution affirming the student body’s commitment to build gender-neutral bathrooms.

When we gather at Plenary, there is an assumption that inherent in this gathering is the composition of our community, that by virtue of this shared space, at this time, we show our unity, reflect the values of ethical engagement, and embody the ideals of trust, concern, and respect that are espoused as representing our student body and our institution.

It seems as though Plenary has lost this feeling.  The assumptions that have carried the student body through Plenaries past no longer seem to be operational in our governance, in our structure, and in our interactions as a student body.  Across campus, there is both distrust in student government and a disproportionate amount of critique levied toward it. It seems that bodies such as Students’ Council and Honor Council can never do anything right. As a community, we have chosen to align ourselves with cancelled culture and disposability practices, both of which see people as means to an end and reject the Other as soon as they make a mistake.  Our code has come to be seen as something punitive rather than the standard of restorative justice we posit it to be, both internally and externally.

This is a problem. The present circumstances show that we are not a community, at least not in any substantive sense. And if we are to do more than just coexist for four years, if we want to effect some change in this place we call Haverford, if we want to make this place better, then it is time to conceptualize what defines us as community at this time.

It is clear that what guided this community in the past no longer serve us. Ideas of shared experience and even a shared understanding of trust, concern, and respect simply do not exist.  If these categories no longer fit us, and if our community no longer conforms to anything we truly share, then we must seek new ground for the positing of a body politic worthy of our dedication.  

If we are to advance our community in a positive way, we must discover new values that truly resonate within this campus. What these are grounded in need not reflect the things that unified Haverford in the past.  Rather, they should imagine and speak to a new ideal. It should speak to what is possible, what is pragmatic, and perhaps, if we dare, it should speak to the seemingly impossible, to the hopes and dreams we wish to achieve on this campus..  

The kind of community we propose is a “community of practice.”  We are adopting this term from Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave, two educational and social theorists, who define it as “knowledge based, informally composed, self-organizing, and [dependent] on deep individual commitment.”  This community is one that encourages individual participation by focusing on “common interests, tasks, and goals.”

While some may argue that we have already accomplished this, we fundamentally believe it is something we have yet to achieve.  What we mean by this is that, currently, we do not foster a sense of need for each Other. We are wrapped up in ourselves and our own personal experience, placing the individual above the communal.  It is a reversal and subversion of the deepest Quaker roots of this college, and it cannot persist. We have an obligation to embody the values we discover. To be the material and symbolic embodiment of such values is to proclaim a different way of life – one that rejects stagnancy and advocates for something wholly new.  

By virtue of our positions in journalism and government on campus, we have an opportunity to see many aspects of life at Haverford, and we have the great privilege of seeing the vibrancy that exists here.  We also acknowledge how that tailors our position on the matter at hand, in that we are a small part of campus with particular biases. However, something that our distinct experiences have shown us has made evident the need for one another, the importance of interdependence at the center of serious community.  We have seen this in spaces all over campus, and what these spaces indicate to us is that a true community has as its central tenet the interdependence of its members on each other. We cannot reassert humanity if we reject the human beside us. This is a task we must face, and it is ever important if our goal is to be a community.  The world, politics, powers, society, each of these things insists on the utilitarian calculus of the good over the importance of each person and the dependence of each of us on the other. We are always, and we will always, be told that we are individuals: that we do not need other people, that we can achieve our own success for ourselves, and so on and so on.  That is society’s message, and it is a lie. It is a lie that eats away at the very foundations of serious community. If we are to be a true community, it will not be enough to say, “Each member is welcome.” It will only be enough when we can say from one member to the next, “I have need of you.”

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