Zehner: Mealtime Musings

For the house communities to work, we must change the way we eat.

by Callum Zehner | 1/16/18 12:15am

Questions about the effectiveness of the new house communities tend to elicit responses of hearty ambivalence. Students refer to the communities’ irrelevance, their failings and their lack of utility. It seems glaringly apparent that the houses have little to no bearing on students’ lives, that they already exist outside of the zeitgeist. In fact, it often seems that their only relevance is found in the brightly-colored shields emblazoned on merchandise and hung from the ceiling of Foco.

While it is no doubt extraordinarily hard to manufacture a communal identity and sense of belonging in two years, Dartmouth’s house system lacks a critical ingredient: cohesion. The most effective way to provide that cohesion and to unite a disparate group of students into an indivisible house is through food. Forcing students to eat in distinct house dining halls will form the sense of community that has thus far been lacking.

The problem with our current house communities is that there is no platform on which they can take prominence, no way for them to be ensconced in student life. Anything house-related is, by definition, optional. There is a constant stream of house events, but their voluntary nature ensures that a vast swath of the houses’ populations don’t attend. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the houses are peripheral to the Dartmouth experience. After all, if the majority of students do not attend house events, then these students cannot be aware of their fellow housemates and no collective identity can exist.

To create such an identity, students need a reason to interact with their house communities, and this can only be achieved through mandatory activities. There needs to be some arm-pulling to initiate change and form bonds. Food is an easy choice. It is true that some people may be dissatisfied at their inability to eat with their non-housemate friends. But as far as restrictions on liberties go, eating in the same dining hall as one’s house is a relatively small sacrifice to make. Three small portions of the day would be dedicated to interacting with your fellow housemates, while leaving all other time open to socializing with the rest of campus.

Personal house dining halls would also enable students living outside of their house communities to feel a sense of physical connection with their houses. Left to their own devices, there is little reason for South House students living in the Lodge, say, to collectively associate with the South House students in a Living Learning Community in McLaughlin. A house dining hall would provide that connection and prevent students from drifting apart from their housemates.

Each house is supposed to be a microcosm, a bite-sized piece of Dartmouth that provides another channel through which students can construct tight-knit groups. For those daunted by the sheer scale of Dartmouth’s student body, one’s house should be a group of people to know incredibly well and be comfortable with. Just as a sports team or a dance team brings students together, a house has the ability to connect people from different backgrounds, creating a sense of solidarity that comes with being stuck in the same situation, of being “in the same boat.” But in order to do so, its members must have a medium through which to meet and talk and joke. Mealtimes, with their inherently communal aspect, can be the kickboard necessary to establish a camaraderie.

The house system, as it stands, is half-baked. It operates in an uncomfortable middle ground where students are forced to live with people they aren’t forced to know. If we look at similar systems at Cambridge University, Harvard University, Oxford University or Yale University, we see that all have separate dining facilities fully integrated into each house. No one disputes the validity of those house systems, and as we have begun on their path, it would be sensible for us to adopt their tried-and-true structures to advance our progress.

Currently, our house communities are communities only in name. Few students feel any real affinity toward their house, primarily because few students actually know the people in their house. The house system exists as an overarching entity, a mythological beast we are instructed to have a connection to. But the house communities have the potential to become so much more. So, let us get to know our housemates. Let us feel drawn to our house because we are drawn to its people, not because we are assigned to it. Let us eat together, so the house communities will truly become communities.