I spent last weekend up in Boston hanging out with TEPs, most of whom were younger folks that had joined TEP years after I had left Boston. And yet I felt reasonably at home with them. I continue to be fascinated by these questions of what makes a community and how community is linked to identity, and had some more thoughts on the subject while riding the bus back to New York.
I’ve rejected the idea that shared experience alone makes a community. Going to high school together, going to work together, living in the same building – all of these create some sort of connection, but it’s not enough for a community to thrive. There has to be a combination of selection and commitment to create a community out of shared experience. But what if the shared experience involves elements of both selection and commitment?
Sharing a rite of passage may be enough to create a community. As Seth Godin points out in his book The Dip, there are challenges in life that we have to push through in order to reap the benefits on the other side. He calls such challenges “The Dip”, but one could also call them rites of passage. Regardless of the name, such experiences create a meaningful shared experience to those who have survived them, because survivors share a level of commitment (to have pushed through The Dip), and a level of selection (only certain people can make it through a given Dip). And given my theory that those two elements add up to community, it makes sense that such rites of passage are used in all sorts of communities. Let’s take some examples:
- Tribes used to have rites of passage that required bloodshed. Similarly, fraternities have their hazing rituals. To survive such rituals required commitment and served as a means of selection that every community member had shared.
- Lawyers have the bar exam. Two lawyers may have gone to law school at different universities, take the bar exam in different states, but still be able to share memories of their law school classes and their experiences of frustration and trepidation when taking the bar.
- Grad students have the grad school experiences of TA’ing, studying for and passing the quals, then the years of loneliness and craziness of research and writing the thesis.
- MIT students have, well, MIT. MIT students share similar experiences of having stayed up all night studying and hard classes such as junior lab, unified, or 6.170.
- TEP had experiences like Rush (when we got about 3 hours of sleep a night for a week while identifying and recruiting the freshmen that we liked), Work Week, and just the general grind of classes as above.
I like this theory because it explains why I feel that instant communities have little or no value. Because there is no Dip, no rite of passage, there’s nothing that has created shared experiences, the stories that define the community. Rooting for a sports team by putting on a baseball cap has no meaning – there’s no commitment or selection process that can ground a community. But rooting for a sports team your whole life, and being able to share experiences of heartbreaking losses and thrilling victories, creates a bond that can form the basis of a community.
Such shared experiences of the rituals necessary to become a community member have the result of creating those community members in a certain image. Phil Agre once wrote a piece where he observed that the point of grad school isn’t to write a thesis – it’s to turn the grad student into a full-fledged member of the academic field. These rites of passage use the elements of selection and commitment to forge community applicants into community members by giving them a community of identity.
Such shared experiences are also why I can feel so comfortable around people that I’ve barely met, as often happens with TEPs. They are all the same people – even though the names have changed, the stories they tell and the experiences they have had remain the same.
I’ll have to play around with these ideas of selection and commitment creating community some more. I think there may be some interesting stuff here. We’ll see if I have time to develop any thoughts with classes starting tonight, though.