Columns

Asker ’17: 257 Thayer is not a problem

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, September 25, 2015

Even though I’m not a 257 Thayer resident and I don’t intend on becoming one, I was piqued by the inflammatory style of Herald Opinions Editor Chad Simon’s ’16 column this week. I suspect many readers were, too. Of course, this was the point of his melodramatic piece, so I suppose a mission of sorts was accomplished. Nevermind that I didn’t find the column funny; I can’t expect my sense of humor to align with everyone else’s. But he did highlight a belief that is funny in another sense of the word that some people on campus apparently hold: that 257 Thayer is inimical to the Brown community. Looking past the goading sarcasm and unhelpful tangents of the column, I found his argument unpersuasive mainly because it grossly underestimates the complexity of the issues at play. I’m glad, however, that he succeeded in bringing the community’s attention to a marginal yet existent opinion on this campus.

To begin with, the column initially stated that living in 257 Thayer costs $3,300 a month per person. This figure was false, as it represented the total rents of three people paying $1,100 a month. But even after The Herald published a clarification, the column was still vulnerable to claims of overreaction. The fact that people are paying $1,100 a month for rent is not something to have a tantrum about; based on Brown’s web page on undergraduate fees, I calculated that it costs nearly $900 per person per month to live in regular campus dorms, which are usually doubles, and that suites cost almost $1,000. From this we can see that it’s both unfair and inaccurate to categorize everyone living in 257 Thayer as rich or sellouts.

I concede that the building is not aesthetically pleasing, but Simon harping on its tackiness actually reinforces that in fact it’s not the Ritz he’s making it out to be, a point that runs contrary to the rest of his column. But this quibbling about pricing and looks is beside the point. Things get interesting when we turn to the bold claims about the negative sociological implications of 257 Thayer.

On these issues, Simon echoes an opinions column from last year by Sam Hillestad ’15. Both columnists make the same non sequitur regarding privilege, which boils down to the following: Brown students who can afford to shouldn’t pursue things they want and can get, like nice housing, because they already have the privilege of going to Brown. Simon says he lives in undesirable housing because “being at Brown is a privilege enough, and it should be for you, too.” But does it follow that if I get one thing I want, I should renounce other things I want? Applied to other aspects of our lives, this logic is absurd. I have the privilege of being able to eat more than I need to survive. Of course I want to eat more than this bare minimum, but apparently it’s unreasonable to do so.

The strongest claim the columnists make is that 257 Thayer will lead to social stratification, that somehow all the tenants will cloister themselves off from the rest of the University by means of the complex. I like the ideals of diversity, “class heterogeneity” and inclusivity as much as the next guy. But these macroscopic phenomena aren’t going to be affected by the construction of a single housing complex.

If the argument is that people shouldn’t choose the housing they want and can afford because doing so creates a class schism, then I question whether their choice would actually create stratification. The building houses an inconsequential number of students — a mere 267 according to a Herald article from last year. In addition, these students continue to interact with the diverse campus population in their classes and extracurricular activities, and they’re as close to campus as any dorm. So with ensuing stratification unlikely, we see people can live there and still be “socially conscious.”

Even if there were a mild homogenizing effect, that’s not reason enough to say unconditionally that no one should live there. We ought to respect people as rational agents who are just as capable as Simon of taking into consideration the negative effects of their choices, but who also account for other things that matter, like location, friends, comfort, etc. For example, I know that a lot of athletes live in 257 Thayer in part because of its proximity to the athletic facilities. We have to respect that people engaging in cost-benefit analysis will come to different conclusions because they come from different circumstances and have different priorities. The columnists’ holier-than-thou attitudes show that they don’t grasp this.

Their argument is now reduced to something like, “You should take into account the slight possibility that living in 257 Thayer will tenuously contribute to socioeconomic stratification on campus,” which I think is a fair thing to ask of people. But there are probably more important considerations that outweigh this one. When I’m older, I’m going to try to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood despite the mildly unfortunate consequence that I will infinitesimally contribute to social stratification. There are more effective ways to combat inequality that don’t involve me opting for lower living standards.

Note too that the building doesn’t epitomize exclusivity or classism any more than anything else, and that both columnists fail to propose solutions to the root of the problem. Granted, it’s not easy. Students on campus will always elect to live and spend time with friends who share the same socioeconomic rung because particular classes breed people with the same values and interests. There is no simple solution, and no solution that is worth pursuing on the microscopic level once we take into consideration the complexity of the issue. If socioeconomic integration is possible, it can only be achieved on the macroscopic level by policymakers through education parity and income equality measures, for example. 

Trying to be funny and dramatic while bashing people’s informed choices is not cool, and in this case it oversimplifies the issues at play. It also works to alienate 257ers, which contravenes the inclusivity Simon supposedly values. I think the wise words of my mom are in order here. When she got fed up dealing with three kids who, quite naturally for their age, found it entertaining to be annoying, she would chide, “What you’re doing is not funny —  or cute.” Having quieted us with harsh but true words that were necessary for us to reflect on our behavior, she was able to move on to more productive things.

Nicholas Asker ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.

  • guest

    actually it was funny…lol