Dr. Mark C. Taylor, chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, issues this call in the NY Times to “End the University as We Know It.”Among other problems, Taylor sees specialization making the university irrelevant: (more…)

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Funny I didn’t find this sooner… but then again, it’s funny that I find anything.

In Infotopia, Cass Sunstein talks about social and informational pressures that can lead groups to become more polarized. One of his favorite examples: a study in which groups composed of either all liberals or all conservatives squelched internal disagreement and took more extreme positions on specified social issues after discussing them in their safe little homogenous groups.

So what does this mean on a university campus, where students naturally self-select their academic and social groups?

If you think about your years at Harvard—or your high school years, or your summers—you’ll probably find that some of the best and most life-defining moments came not from your own self-sorting, but from the power of serendipity. Institutions—including educational institutions—can create an architecture of serendipity. They can promote common spaces in which different types of people mingle together. They can promote interactions between people who are different in terms of political convictions, social backgrounds, and even interests. They can combat self-segregation through housing assignments, curriculum, and social nudges of countless different kinds.

In key ways, the architecture of control and the architecture of serendipity are at odds. Some universities, stores, television broadcasters, and government offices promote the echo chamber; others promote serendipity. My suggestion is that for good lives, good universities, and good societies, the power of self-sorting is at best a mixed blessing. However unpleasant and jarring they can be, unchosen, unanticipated encounters play a crucial role; they are indispensable not only to education but also to citizenship itself. Far from wishing them away, we should welcome them [Cass Sunstein, “The Architecture of Serendipity,” The Harvard Crimson, 2008.06.04].