It’s official — the College Houses have out-TV’d my dad. As reported in a Daily Pennsylvanian news article by Ray Pomponio, starting this year College House residents will get Comcast’s Xfinity On Demand streaming service included in the ever-increasing price of rent.
Even my tech-happy father, who has enthusiastically upgraded our “home theater” infrastructure every few years since my birth, hasn’t quite sprung for that yet.
While I am sure that College House residents will appreciate the service, I have to confess that it seems to me an extravagance.
Yes, I know, I’m a miserable curmudgeon. But I think I’ve actually got a case here.
Before I present my defense, let me make a couple of disclosures up front: I do not know how much the upgrade cost the University. Penn’s opaque financial disclosure practices made sure of that. I presume, however, that there was some associated cost. Comcast is not a charity.
What interests me more than how much Penn actually paid for the streaming service — even if it was a bargain — is the mindset that went into the decision to make that particular purchase at all.
Pomponio’s article provides a pretty clear indication as to what that mindset was.
“The opportunity for students to get levels of service closer to what they have at home is always something I’m trying to do,” Director of Residential Services John Eckman said.
To some degree, that’s unsurprising. Eckman’s job is to provide College House residents with a comfortable, enjoyable living experience. But just how comfortable and enjoyable, exactly? The answer to that question, and to the coordinating question of to what extent comfort and enjoyment-related expenditures are justified in a university housing system, will logically depend on what the proper goal of such a system is.
American academia’s history and heritage provide an answer to that question. Colonial America’s first colleges were residential largely because their founders came from the English tradition of residential universities, which in turn had its roots in religious monasticism. The animating belief in each case was the same: that complete devotion to studies — religious or secular — was possible only under conditions of immersion. It is no mistake that the Anglo-American university’s signature architectural feature — the quad — replicates the inward-facing, monastic cloister.
In his book “The American College and University: A History,” educational historian Frederick Rudolph called the tradition of American student residence “so fundamental, so all-encompassing, that to call it merely a tradition is to undervalue it. For what is involved here is nothing less than [...] the notion that a curriculum, a library, a faculty, and students are not enough to make a college.”
This, then, is the historical purpose of campus residences: to provide students the opportunity to enrich their academic experience by extending it beyond the classroom, into an additional and more intimate sphere of students’ lives. Markedly different from that of a home, this goal represents the belief that students learn better when they are surrounded by other learners and thinkers not only in the classroom, but also in their domestic lives.
It seems, therefore, that expenditures on housing ought to be closely related to fostering lively, vibrant living-learning communities — places that enable and encourage students to learn from each and with one another and support them in doing so.
Certainly some degree of luxury furthers this objective. It’s true that generations past made do with far more spartan dorms than we’ve become accustomed to and are seemingly none the worse for it. It’s fair, however, to assume that there is some link between providing a degree of material comfort and creating a space which is optimally conducive to actually living the life of the mind.
Unpopular as saying so will probably be, I think fancy television streaming fails this test. As I can attest as a partially-recovered Netflix user, increased access to online streaming hardly prods one to leave the dorm room and engage intellectually with peers.
To be fair, Residential Services’ mission statement doesn’t actually say anything about making residences conducive to peer learning, so maybe that’s the problem. It makes me wonder, though, why Penn goes to the trouble of following the tradition of providing student housing — it’s not like there’s any local shortage — if not to supplement its academic mission. Maybe it’s just a revenue-generating scheme, and the fancy TV packages just another way to lure customers. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.
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