Bringing Up Les Etudiants: Food and the College Experience

July 14, 2012, 2:19 pm

Annenberg Dining Hall at Harvard University

I have just begun reading Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (Penguin: 2012), and I must confess that I am hooked on French social engineering.

The best child rearing manuals and adolescent psychology books offer serious reflections on the young that a college teacher is unlikely to encounter in graduate training or in the workplace. Bringing Up Bebe is an entertaining, intelligent and well-written version of something you might call “Developmental Psychology for Dummies.” Aimed at the parents of young children, it offers surprising insights on the teaching challenges many of us face with young adults. Students can lack of patience for simple tasks. They often need to be entertained or persuaded to learn through some new gimcrackery. Students at all levels have difficulty in dealing with frustration or failure, are afflicted with the  need to have their own views validated by the teacher, and many seem unable to listen or respond accurately to others.

Perhaps the greatest point of criticism that the modern university professor has to contend with is the fearful unwillingness of many students to depart from the intellectual herd and articulate an independent idea lest they be mocked by other students or punished by the teacher’s disapproval. While some teachers may insist on their own views in inappropriate ways, students shouldn’t need to be invited to argue in class, to present and fight for their own views, or be reduced to silent resentment when they don’t hear their own, pre-existing, views validated.

And yet this is too often the case. So where can we look to imagine how students might be better socialized as self-confident, independent thinkers who can express, tolerate and even seek out dissent?

I would like to argue for the dining hall. Druckerman’s comments on the role of food in developing social citizenship suggest some ways into socializing students (and perhaps re-socializing faculty and administrators) that do not require elaborate training, co-curricular programs, or a squad of peer interns. What if we simply went back in time and asked university communities to eat together?

According to Druckerman, French parents take socialization seriously from the moment a child hits the ground, and food plays a critical role in teaching life skills. Children are taught to regard eating, and other basic activities, as pleasurable experiences that demand attention to other people’s comfort as well as their own. They are treated as adults-in-training and as sentient beings who can be trusted with unfamiliar tastes, firm schedules and polite conversation. French children are taught to prepare foods and then wait until mealtime to eat them: during those mealtimes, they are expected to eat without acting out and, because every event in their day hasn’t come with a snack, hunger is likely to push them to consume what is before them in a tidy fashion.

In contrast, American children tend to be fed whenever they ask for food or, importantly, when they don’t. Go to any restaurant and you will see children ordering food they don’t eat, requiring a special food that is not on the menu, or requesting the same two foods at every meal. American play with what is on their plates and with everything else on the table, interrupt adults, scream when they aren’t being attended to, leave messes for other people to clean up and run about the dining space they are in as if it is a playroom.

Eating is one of many entertainments available to children in the United States, while for French children it is serious business and a preparation for life’s social tasks. So my question is: what is the relationship between eating habits that American students bring with them to college, the eating experience offered at college, and the quality of the college experience itself?

This question arose in a conversation at the vacation dinner table the other night. Why, we asked each other, do college students no longer eat meals together at defined times and in a common location? Why does the emphasis on individual eating schedules that often begins in overstressed middle-class homes perpetuate itself as a practice into the college years? What does the absence of students eating the same food together, during prescribed hours and at the long wooden tables that used to characterize college dining halls, signify for a liberal arts education?

Perhaps you see where this post is going already: this interesting conversation happened at the dinner table. In other words, our dinner didn’t happen in a relay while the television was blaring and as people dropped in from their own activities. The group ranged in age from 55 to 80, and family dinner has been the default option in our lives. All of us received liberal arts educations at residential institutions; three of us are university professors; and two of us are parents.

One of us opened the conversation by noting how distressing it was that communal campus dining has more or less disappeared. Students eat when they please, in mixed-activity student centers that emphasize individual food choices rather than a collective social experience. Many students live in new dormitory arrangements that feature kitchens where they cook for themselves and for the friends with whom they have chosen to live.  What are the consequences for a university community, one of our friends asked, when students no longer “break bread” together?

We should pause here to note that there are practical reasons that college dining has changed so radically. One of them, it will not surprise you to learn, is thrift.  The schools I know that maintain residential dining halls — Yale and Harvard among them — are surrounded by other dining options, but it is also the case that well-endowed institutions have not needed to cut their budget by ridding themselves of union workers and outsourcing student meals. The multiple dining units and fast-foods that characterize contemporary college food service are open all day and into the night, are the work of Aramark, Bon Appetit, Chik-Fil-A and other food megaliths that provide filling meals and many choices at a low, low cost.  Colleges take bids and accept the ones that suit their budget, while the food giant tries to create appealing food service options for the money allotted.

Food services, and colleges, also save lots of $$ by not serving breakfast. It is said that students, as a group, do not eat breakfast. However, it is also said that students won’t take 8:30 or 9:00 classes, which is utterly false, since if you put required classes at that hour, sections fill magically. Of course, they fill with students who haven’t eaten breakfast, and thus, in any public school district, would be viewed as unprepared to learn.

Simultaneously, student needs — in other words, the preferences that students voice and the health issues they have identified prior to college — have changed, as have ideas about how body image and personal responsibility are linked to an awareness of a student’s consumption o food.  Many students view food as fraught with health, lifestyle, political or ethical choices: they come to school diagnosed with a range of allergies and syndromes that were unknown thirty years ago; or they might be vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free by choice.  Students also come to school with eating disorders in far greater numbers than they ever did, and idiosyncratic eating habits that — like some of their learning issues — that they or their parents view as diagnosable. Students have always been obsessed with whether they did or did not like their bodies, but they now discuss them in language drawn from the DSM-IV.

Hence, allowing students to eat in any way they choose has been reconceived on campus as a public health issue. According to this treatment center, whereas 15% of women age 17-24 have a diagnosed eating disorder (this is a higher rate than say, women who identify as lesbians, or the percentage of African-American students at any elite school), 40% of college women have a diagnosed eating disorder, and 91% report dieting to control their weight. Male eating disorders are also ballooning, particularly (according to this article in the Daily Princetonian) among men at elite schools who are under pressure to achieve.

Smaller-scale dining that offers lots of choices has, in other words, become a way to tempt students to eat in a way that feels good to them, and at the same time cut costs by trimming back waste and eliminating the staff that cooked and cleaned up after student meals. Furthermore, students can often save money by buying a meal plan that represents how they really eat — although here we need to note that many students buy the meal plan they can afford and, as a consequence, go hungry on an ongoing basis or at the end of the term.

But is there a cost to students in all of these choices that are theoretically tailored to what they want? Our group thought there was, and this is what we came up with:

Several of us looked back on college dining as a set of times during the day when we discussed ideas. At Oligarch University, breakfast included many of us reading the New York Times and discussing the day’s news, which invariably led to larger conversations based on the courses we were taking.  While in many ways we were more sheltered than today’s students, such conversations connected what we were learning to real-world problems and led to ideas about what we would do for work — either that summer or beyond college.

Dining hall conversations promoted the art of civilized, vigorous argument. A dining hall is a terrific place to argue, since food imposes certain limits (for example, while you are eating you have to cede the floor temporarily) and no one is graded for being right or wrong.  Saying what you think, especially if it is a minority position, takes practice and self-confidence that may be difficult to develop in a classroom setting. They may be easier to develop in a setting where another student may leap into the fray because s/he agrees even a little bit, because s/he is offended by the lack of fairness in the attack on someone’s idea,  because s/he has specific knowledge that makes a contribution, or because s/he is simply a friend. When I see faculty being criticized for not creating an environment where students can “say what they think” I think about the many students who have shown up in my office confessing that they don’t know how to make an argument orally, or that they are uncomfortable disagreeing with anyone in any setting. Such skills can be developed in other social settings — but only if those settings are heterogeneous.

Dining halls with fixed mealtimes and fixed meal plans provided that ideologically and socially heterogeneous environment. Everyone’s gotta eat! When every student  has the same meal plan, every student eats; when dinner is served from 5:30 to 8:00, students are likely to be in the same space with people they are not choosing; when students eat at long tables, they are likely to be drawn into, or overhear, conversations that they would not otherwise be privy to. Standing in line to get one’s meal tray filled, going to the salad bar or the drink stand, and picking up coffee and the after the meal led to other encounters which sometimes mean leaving your original group and joining a second.

Contemporary arrangements, however, mean that students can choose when, what, why and with whom they eat. It isn’t uncommon to see students simply eating alone, or eating snacks in place of a meal as they cross the campus to another appointment, class or study session. But even if students do socialize over food under the current arrangements, being able to eat only with people who you have already chosen has implications for whether you ever have to listen to views that do not mirror your own.

The ugly interactions on campus that mirror the conservative-liberal polarization of our political life could be significantly ameliorated by students not being able to choose the company they keep so absolutely. People may naturally drift towards those to whom they are sympathetic, but why shouldn’t the campus challenge that on a daily basis? Instead, we insist that it must be the fault of faculty that students don’t know how to listen to or argue with each other in a civilized way, or we organize co-curricular activities to bring students together in artificial ways.

Campus dining halls give the faculty a place to engage students on their own turf. Eating together without having to make an arrangement to do so can be a way for students and faculty to interact with each other as the adults they all are.  If the college ate only one meal together, I would argue that it should be lunch, and that there should be a gap in the daily schedule between 12 and 1:00 in which no classes could be taught or meetings held.  Furthermore, faculty should be offered free or discounted meals to encourage them to eat with students — not on an invitation-only basis, but to simply drop in and sit down.

Students love to socialize with faculty and frankly, life has changed forever on that front. The two-career household, commuting, child care, and those all of us who are not equipped with that wife who traditionally served sherry and cookies at the seminar break means that students interact with faculty on an almost entirely formal basis. I think this shift has had a deleterious effect on faculty as well: it is much harder to know students as whole people with a range of creative talents, to find out what they think on a range of subjects, to follow up a topic that was raised in class and abandoned too soon, or to learn more about students’ backgrounds and beliefs. This kind of learning is extraordinarily important to students, both emotionally and in giving their classroom knowledge a real-world context.

Obviously the ideas above have special relevance to residential campuses populated with full time students: a quick Google search shows that, in fact, some universities have retained or reinstituted a “high table” tradition.  But shouldn’t eating together be the norm rather than the exception? And can’t we imagine that a community college with commuter students and adjunct faculty would benefit disproportionately from the availability of collective dining experiences, addressing the structural disconnection and alienation that can be typical of non-residential campuses?

So readers: should we think about eating together as an educational policy issue? Could re-institution the dining commons be done, using money that is currently diverted to repairing the social gap that has resulted from not eating together as a community?


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