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viewpoint

The dorm system’s failure

| Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Certain works are so powerful they act upon their material, forming perspectives and shaping realities of the object they describe. One such tract was initiated when, in 1831, the French government despatched diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville on a nine-month survey of American jails. Although Tocqueville dutifully completed his official report, his masterpiece was only revealed four years later, when he published “Democracy in America,” a book of epochal significance for Americans’ understandings of themselves. Tocqueville argued America’s unique character owed much to Puritan institutions, particularly New England’s townships, where “power has been broken into fragments,” and thus “the maximum possible number of people have some concern with public affairs.” Tocqueville praised this inclusive community governance, writing “the New Englander is attached to his township because it is strong and independent” and “he shares in its management.” Furthermore, self-governance leads citizens to “practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.” This vestment of common persons with autonomy and political responsibilities formed the citizens who constructed an America removed from Old World rigidities of class and state.

While Notre Dame projects an image of Americanism as wholesome as apple pie and as dominant as the machines of death that thunder above our football games, the contrast between the young republic’s free citizens and the infantilized residents of the University’s dorms is striking. Power is meaningfully exercised in the dorms only by administratively-selected rectors and assistant rectors, with dorm residents’ elected officials forced to appeal to hall staff for the modest changes they are (sometimes) allowed to make. Changes of dorm policy are made, at best, after cursory consultation with the dorm’s residents, who are simply told the way things are going to be. Transitions in dorm location, of which there have recently been so many, are imposed ex cathedra by the hieratical powers-that-be who command the student masses in the fashion of their ecclesiastical predecessors, who directed centuries of peasants awed by their priests’ learning and power. The idea of putting a dorm’s decisions to that most American ceremony, a popular vote, is as unthinkable as — horror of horrors — selling condoms at The Huddle. Forget the democratic Early Church, when congregations voted for their bishops; this institution emulates the imperialistic Renaissance Papacy. The University aspires to devour South Bend as the Popes once did central Italy, and students’ five-figure tuition payments to an institution with $10,000,000,000 (sic) in treasure seem little different from indulgences. Unfortunately, while the 16th century’s sacerdotal excesses yielded St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame’s rapaciousness produced Campus Crossroads, a wretchedly ugly altar to late capitalism.

The unresponsive authoritarianism characterizing dorm governance was brought into sharp focus when, last Wednesday, “new proposals to enhance our on-campus undergraduate residential communities” were issued. Noting “a trend in recent years for upper-classmen/women — especially seniors — to move off-campus,” the administration “undertook a one-year study to better understand the reasons for students moving off-campus,” held “a dozen student focus groups,” and then ignored them. After perfunctory reference (“We learned,” students “were attracted by…the greater independence of off-campus living”) to the student groups’ concerns, quickly shelved, the true announcement appears: beginning next fall “the University will require first-year students, sophomores and juniors to live on campus for six semesters.”

I’m not going to waste much time explaining this decision’s obvious motivation. The Golden Dome’s avaricious exchequer was piqued by the trickling away of off-campus students’ housing fees and put an end to it. This decision — high-handed, myopic and paternalistic — encapsulates the essential failure of the dorm system: its denizens are subjects, not citizens. Their residence halls governed by campus bureaucrats’ diktats, dorm residents are being prepared better for subservience in the deadening hierarchies of a Fortune 500 corporation, a dogmatic religion, or an authoritarian state than for lives as free and active citizens in a vital and raucous republic.

Although the dorm system does many things well — Keough Hall will always have a spot in my heart — the institution’s integrity and value is fundamentally compromised by its most acute shortcoming, that denial of autonomy and mockery of self-governance emphatically demonstrated and monumentally reinforced by the housing policy change. I do not expect that this ruling will be reversed; Notre Dame lacks the culture of student political action that has forced policy shifts elsewhere, and I’m certain campus leadership is as assured of their rectitude in this matter as they are of the Church’s good conduct in its dilatory investigations into its decades of systematic pederasty. Still more new dorms, homogenous and deluxe, will be built, regardless of need or demand, while continuing as institutions so anti-democratic, dependent and weak they will decay their students’ abilities and inclinations to serve as the independent and participatory citizens our present republic so desperately needs.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Devon Chenelle

Devon Chenelle is a senior, formerly of Keough Hall. Returning to campus after seven months abroad, Devon is a history major with minors in Italian and Philosophy. He can be reached at dchenell@nd.edu - On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.

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