Two years ago I led a small group discussion about self-governance during New Student Orientation. I tried my best to explain the fairly nebulous concept and did a passable job, but there was one persistently inquisitive first-year who just would not let the topic rest. All the other newcomers were squirming on the hard concrete floor because the hypnotist beckoned, and the NSO hypnotist is not to be missed (what better way to bond with your new friends than to see them do humiliating things?). However, this particular new student kept challenging me to further explain self-governance.
After several minutes of a shoddy comparison to John Locke’s social contract theory, I finally threw up my hands and said with exasperation, “It’s about community! Forget Locke. It’s just about living in a community.” He still didn’t seem satisfied, but self-governance can’t really be taught in the way he wanted to learn it. There can and should be dialogue about it. It can’t be reduced to a bullet-point list.
Back when I myself was a skeptical first-year hell-bent on damning The Man, I thought this self-governance thing was a bunch of hooey cooked up by the administration to make us behave ourselves. I thought it was some sort of reverse psychology thing: make the students believe they’re following the rules because they want to, and they’ll feel empowered and be obedient.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The ideal of self-governance has become one of my favorite things about this school. Living in Grinnell, it’s always very clear that you live in a tiny, interdependent community. Self-governance means being cognizant of this fact, understanding that your actions affect the lives of others, and therefore taking appropriate actions in your day-to-day activities.
Self-governance means being honest and actively engaging in the community in which you live. It doesn’t mean doing whatever you want, nor does it connote the absence of any rules. I don’t think there can be any “upholding” or “adhering” to self-governance. It’s more of a philosophy and way of living that translates into your actions in everyday life, and that’s not something anyone can regulate.
You’re expected to clean up after yourself, and people will call you out on it if you don’t. You’re expected to own up to fines you generate, and are usually rewarded with reduced fines for your honesty. People take care of each other, drunk and sober. Classmates lend you books even if they don’t really know you. Instead of complaining to your roommate about the loud music down the hall, you ask your hallmate to turn it down. Instead of complaining to your hallmate about your roommate’s slovenly ways, you introduce your roommate to the wonder of Clorox Wipes. You’re expected to act like the adult that you are, but you’re not required to be perfect. It’s very liberating, sometimes annoying, and helps create an amazing community.
Earlier today my friend and I were walking across Mac Field when we encountered several abandoned tables in the middle of the big grassy field. A few of them were broken down the middle, looking very much like wounded soldiers forgotten in the Saturday night battlefield. We stopped suddenly in our tracks, perplexed by the carnage.
“Well, there’s the graveyard of self-governance,” my friend remarked cynically. Sometimes people like to talk about the death of self-governance, like it’s rolling in its grave somewhere whenever anyone vomits in a stairwell and doesn’t clean it up. Terrible extended analogies aside, I disagree with the proclamation of death. Self-governance is manifested in countless individual actions, both miniscule and large, some of which no one will ever be aware.
No college campus or community can exist in complete harmony. That being said, I do not suggest that Grinnell is a utopian society. What it is, though, is a group of interconnected, thoughtful, and passionate individuals. Stuff does happen, but we are generally a responsible bunch, and are treated as such. While I cannot define self-governance in a way that will please every new student who joins our ranks, I do hope that you can find a way to use the philosophy to create your own worthwhile Grinnell experience.
Caitlin Carmody '08 is a Political Science major from Grand Rapids, Michigan.