Emily Spine ’11 and the other Ephs on the Committee on Community Interaction continue to do fine work. They are serious, thoughtful and — most importantly from a process point of view — transparent. Alas, their task is a hard one. How can we improve “the way people in this community interact with each other” at Williams?

My suggestion: Expand First Days (pdf) by one week.

Now, to be fair, the first part of CCI’s work is to determine if Williams has a problem. I think that too many people exaggerate the extent of, say, racism at Williams (c.f. the empty star chamber) but there is no doubt that a wonderful place can always be made more wonderful. Surely we can agree that the amount of drunken vandalism at Williams is suboptimal.

The key insight of organizations that try to change their members behavior (and even value systems) is that the best time to do so is at the very beginning. The Marine Corps places boot camp at the start of your service, not because it is critical to learn how to shine your boots the first week, but because that is the occasion for leaving behind your civilian values and replacing them with different ones. The same applies to religious cults. It is hard for the CCI to do anything which will significantly change the behavior of a Williams senior. He is what he is. You can try to change him, but don’t expect to succeed.

But the same student, as an 18 year-old first year, new to college and to Williams, having left behind the old landmarks of high school and family, trying to adjust to a new world with an unknown culture and foreign standards, that Eph is malleable. You can change his “heart and mind,” if not easily than with more ease than you can an older student, someone who has already found a place for himself at Williams.

Now, the exact mechanics of how we might make First Years better people, how we might change their values so that they are less likely to trash someone’s room or shout a racial slur, is a difficult topic. Yet we can all agree that that process takes time, that First Days are already too filled to accomplish much, that any effort to improve community interaction requires hours and hours of effort. Add a week to First Days and you have that time.

Imagine an extra week of First Days, a week that focuses almost completely on meeting your fellow Ephs, on learning their names, their dreams, their hopes and aspirations. Imagine a freshmen class in which every resident of Pratt knows, not just the names of everyone in her entry, but the names of every student in her dorm. Imagine a week cut off from Williams academics and Williams sports, a week spent focusing on your classmates, the students you will spend the next four years with and then stay connected with for decades thereafter.

If you want to improve “community interaction” then you need to strengthen the Williams community, and that begins by learning names and sharing meals. Such learning and sharing occurs in entries and during the school year, of course. But the more such connections are made, the stronger our community will become.

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