A term we often hear from time to time—sometimes in the pages of this newspaper—is the idea of the “McGill Community.” While this works best as a tidy phrase to lump together disparate stakeholders—students, faculty, employees, the administration, and alumni—in most instances, there is no such “McGill community,” so much as a collection of young and older adults united by the coincidence of attending the same educational institution.
On some level, considering the size of this university, just over 20,000 full-time undergraduate students alone, the idea that McGill comprises any sort of community is dubious on its face. Still, comparably-sized campuses elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. seem to cultivate a sense of “school spirit”, or a “community.” At other universities, students show up to the sporting events, and wear the symbols of these institutions for life. While one certainly sees students wearing McGill apparell, there is a noticiable lack of ritualistic expressions of pride that exist at some other campuses. What makes this university different?
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the McGill student body is how fragmented it is. While there are certainly specific rituals that are common to many students—complaining about Minerva, for instance—there are vanishingly few shared activities or experiences that could be generalized to a supposed “average” McGill student that actually exclude large portions of our campus. The debate over the value—and values—of frosh, which rewinds itself every Fall like clockwork, stands as a case in point.
For all the hand-wringing as of late over this lack of cohesiveness—witness the recent debate over the lack of a sports culture, at McGill—there is much to love—or at least tolerate—in this status quo. For one, there isn’t much of a social hierarchy on campus. With the possible exception of those who live in residence in their first year—another oft-generalized experience that ignores many—it is relatively easy to find a niche of like-minded students, and stick to that niche. This is particularly useful for those who may have felt excluded from the main social groups in previous stages of life.
Still, a feature of the student body, less of a whole and more a collection of much smaller, like-minded communities in miniature, does lead to sharper divisions and conflict when forced to interact. The spaces of tension can vary—conference sessions in some departments, or even the pages of campus publications like this one—but the results are the same.
When confronted with the reality—subconsciously acknowledged but never explicitly pointed out—that we share a campus with others who see the world differently, contempt, derision, and sometimes vitriol, are almost natural reactions. From passive-aggressive (and sometimes fully aggressive) responses to contrasting views in classes, to comments expressing a desire to humiliate an author of a seemingly controversial commentary piece—to take the example of a reaction to a piece from earlier this year, vomit on the person—the thread that unites these responses is the same. It’s not just an offence at the opinion or worldview, but a sort of meta-offence at the idea that someone with such views has to share a university, and perhaps even a classroom with oneself.
Even considering these brief flares of divisiveness, the alternative is not necessarily an improvement. A more robust conception of ‘school spirit’ is really just an attempt to patch over these underlying divisions with a happy-seeming caulking. A more honest university culture would be one that embraces the fact that we all see things—from the big picture to the seemingly simple—differently, and tries to work around it. On some level, while attempts to make McGill a university with more ‘spirit’ are well guided, they might amount to an attempt to shove a square peg in a round hole.