Alan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind was probably the all-time best-selling jeremiad over the state of higher education. With ever more students aspiring to a post-secondary education, and widely divergent opinions over the purpose of higher education both in the academy and in the public square, there is no shortage of prescriptions for improving what happens at colleges and universities.
Bloom’s proposal—reading the best old books with a teacher who can help students ask good questions—is at one end of a spectrum. The other end of the spectrum places the emphasis on contemporary relevance and the increased use of information technology.
I am not against better information technology, and I am most certainly not against reading good books, but if I were to weigh into the debate on higher education, my suggestion for the Number One priority for improvement would be: redesign the campus cafeteria.
Have you recently visited a college or university cafeteria? Almost without exception these are dismal places, undifferentiated caverns floored with threadbare wall-to-wall carpeting or easy-to-clean linoleum tiling and furnished with castaway furniture from those low-taste decades, the 1970s and 1980s. Closely resembling mall food courts, but without the aesthetic splendour and consumer options. Closely resembling airport departure lounges, but without the sweet, sweet soothing music and high quality of service.
The problem with the campus cafeteria, and the reason why it is a crucial impediment to the life of the mind in higher education, is not the tacky interior design, the bad-food monopolies, or the sensory-overload music. It’s the lack of alcoves.
“Alcove No. 1 was located in the City College lunchroom, a vast ground-floor space which even we, who came from slums or near-slums, judged to be an especially slummy and smelly place,” wrote Irving Kristol in his 1977 “Memoirs of a Trotskyist.”
There was a small semicircular counter where one could buy franks or milk or coffee. I suppose they also sold some sandwiches, but I certainly never bought one, and I do not remember anyone else ever committing such an act of profligacy. . . . The center of the lunchroom, taking up most of the space, consisted of chest-high, wooden tables under a low, artificial ceiling. . . . Around this central area there was a fairly wide and high-ceilinged aisle; and bordering the aisle, under large windows with small panes of glass that kept out as much light as they let in, were the alcoves—semicircular (or were they rectangular?), each with a bench fitted along the wall and a low, long refectory table in the middle. The first alcove on the right, as you entered the lunchroom, was Alcove No. 1, and this soon became most of what City College meant to me. It was there one ate lunch, played Ping-Pong (sometimes with a net, sometimes without), passed the time of day between and after classes, argued incessantly, and generally devoted oneself to solving the ultimate problems of the human race. The penultimate problems we figured could be left for our declining years, after we had graduated.
CCNY’s 1930s lunchroom Alcove No. 1 was a hothouse of the mind that nourished a crop of extraordinarily influential public intellectuals, including Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Kristol—the godfather of neoconservatism—himself. And to some extent its success in sheltering and fostering an intellectual community really is a design issue.
The architectural visionary Christopher Alexander wrote in his landmark 1977 book A Pattern Language: Towns—Buildings—Construction that “the life of a public square forms naturally around its edge. If the edge fails, then the space never becomes lively.” Because of this, he proposes as a design norm that we should “surround public gathering places with pockets of activity—small, partly enclosed areas at the edges, which jut forward into the open space between the paths, and contain activities which make it natural for people to pause and get involved.” In a campus cafeteria, that means alcoves.
Modern higher education suffers from a numbing conformity of opinion. And, since we build as we believe, the modern college and university is composed of barn-like lecture halls in which to process herds of students. But in these modern times a public college or university must be a campus: a field of struggle between contending worldviews. Large institutions will always be populated by a mass of people who hold no strong opinions and are swayed with relative ease by what they perceive to be the mainstream. But these institutions gain their life from the small groups who think hard and argue fiercely for one or another deeply held set of convictions. To encourage students today to take their own and others’ beliefs seriously, and to think coherently about these beliefs—as Kristol claims his generation did, at least at CCNY—we need to create space for diversity, both in the spirit and in the stone of our educational communities. The kind of diversity needed on a modern campus is not the dull diversity of racial or ethnic quotas, nor the absolute, segregationist diversity of apartheid or the tribal reserve, but rather the lively, interactive diversity of small groups who hold diverse views on the truly important issues and are able to engage in civil, adult debate over their views, groups who enjoy both the sheltering partial enclosure of alcoves and the inviting common space of the public square—the cafeteria of the mind.