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  • I’ve found that relationships make up the only really irreplaceable component of my college life. Tweet This
  • The integration of students with local life is fertile soil in which to grow social trust. Tweet This
  • Even to interact in passing with families might spur some students’ hopes for a well-ordered life after college.  Tweet This
Category: Education

By the end of an average weekday, I’ll have shared a meal with my housemates, greeted the old man who frequents the chapel during the same hours I do, and retired after some time playing spades with my neighbors next door. My spirits are high and rest in the contentment that tends to follow neighborly interaction. Through seven semesters of college, I’ve found that relationships like these make up the only really irreplaceable component of my college life. As it stands, most of my formation has come from outside the University, or at most indirectly from it, by the unique schedule and environment it allows. Whereas courses and events come and go—surely not so different from school to school—the community aspect renews my hope in the system each new term. 

The modern university, in its quest to produce self-gratifying individualists, ignores its purpose of “training good members of society.” Rather, many universities push ideology and profitability. Students are primarily consumers—ones to appease with leniency and ease over expectation and challenge. Online tools are the popular vehicle for this framework: irrespective of content, schools yield to the technology syndicate, sacrificing student welfare for easy escape into the online world.

Screens aside, the topic of educational reform is profuse. Since the late 19th century, what exactly should constitute school-age education has been under question. Debate at the time centered around the merits of knowledge-based versus psychological development-focused schooling; the latter has come out ahead ever since. 

Without knowledge acquisition at the center of education, students are raised with no desire for things seemingly beyond (or higher than) their limited perception. They no longer seek to grasp and to possess the simple realities that history, literature, and the natural world offer. In short, they do not develop the desire to know others, let alone themselves. Knowledge remains a need, despite a shifting educational landscape.

When students educated under this regime reach college, most are unequipped to defend against a paltry curriculum. Courses either lack discourse or are altogether skewed. Without earlier training to fill the mind with valuable habits and material, a 20-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble developing knowledge into good writing, deepening understanding by connecting subjects, or engaging the events and people around her. As a result, the majority of college students today simply do not know things, especially of the arts and letters.

Where the purpose of education is forgotten, little can be expected in terms of social formation. Proper learning, as John Henry Newman wrote, “brings the mind into form,” cultivating the full human person and sending him out. Put another way, absent this desire to know another, relational skills crumble. Yet here is where the university also brings hope of a solution, though not in the ways it is designed to do so.

Social trust has declined—even the most ordinary observations of passers-by give this impression. Americans have little interaction with neighbors—the percentage of Americans who say they know none of their neighbors sees persistent increase moving down through the age ranges, from 4% among those 65 and up, to 23% for those 18 to 29. For younger generations, this downward trend will cement all the hostility and isolation of neighbor mistrust if we make no efforts against it. True, distrust might be merited: notice the prominence of populist distrust on the right, touching everything from marriage to technology. Still, it is unfortunate that these are the conditions. How to make up for a now-ingrained social cynicism?

One way is by improving our local connections on campus. In an earlier piece in this space on neighborliness, Thomas O’Rourke posits that “bridging networks,” by which we bring mere acquaintances into our fold, may be more integral to overall social trust than “bonding networks,” or circles of close personal connections like friends and family. For those my age, the task is to integrate that idea with the unique and contrived environment of college. If not the substance, then the structure of university life can compensate for an otherwise limping education.

My own circle of peers serves as an apt example. We seek in extracurriculars what we cannot find in official university offerings: the commonplace debating society transforms into a source of intellectual formation as we exchange ideas and socialize. It is only a starting point, but it causes us to go further in the neighborliness endeavor at hand. By design, I live in a house full of friends, which has its benefits. I also live next door to peers of another social group. In sharing with them a back driveway but not a living room, we usually have to make a point of inviting one another over, if only to play cards or for a more organized dinner party. What began as a bridge connection we have cemented into a small snapshot of revitalized, relationship-oriented college leisure. Because these friends retain their position as next-door neighbors, that perspective generates a sense of community with the whole street, whether or not I end up engaging with any of the people in these other houses.

University neighborhood-building is not limited to student-to-student interaction. Rather, the integration of students with local life is fertile soil in which to grow social trust. My experience draws from my Catholic parish just off-grounds. The designation as a “university parish” means that the student ministry combines with regular parishioners to form a cohesive body. Being so enmeshed in an environment populated almost wholly with college-aged kids, it is somewhat of a surprise to recall that others, at completely different stages of life, inhabit the town as well. This is especially true regarding exposure to families: on a college campus—and amid a falling birth rate—students are not likely to run into many married couples and young children. Not so within the integrated parish. Post-mass crowds are lively and intergenerational, and opportunities to babysit or teach religious education are always available. Even to interact in passing with these families might spur some students’ hopes for a well-ordered life after college. 

Of course, social trust does not come merely from the sight of pleasant community. Regular members of the parish do much for the student ministry, from putting together snack donations during exam times to committing to hours of prayer on our behalf. The psychological effects on students are of no little import: we can rely on a system of people—with whom we might hardly have made acquaintance—to offer generous support and example. Perhaps for the older crowd, too, some trust is built in seeing younger generations receptive to this example and set on steady paths.

At the heart of waning social trust is loss of charity. Without education that instructs the mind to think and to love, that teaches the student to recognize virtue and pursue it, the matter is lost much earlier than in the past. Lost, but not past the point of redress: like it or not, the neighbor is always there for the knowing.

Emma Fuentes is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia and an intern with the Institute for Family Studies.