Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Nope, not a vaudeville duo. Rather, an 1887 division of social-group types by the German proto-sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Gemeinschaft (more or less meaning “community”) is a group of people who work to maintain bonds with one another, who know one another well enough that a sense of belonging matters for its own sake. Gesellschaft (more or less meaning “society”) has to do with social organizations that are instrumental in nature, relating to one another more through roles (shopkeeper, customer, supervisor) within which individuals are interchangeable.

Gemeinschaft, one might imagine, places limits on the size of community that can actually sustain those bonds of affection and collegiality. The K-12 school reform leader Deborah Meier used to talk about what she called the 20/20 school—20 teachers, each with 20 students. At that scale, everybody knows everybody. Once you’re up to the size of the University of Alabama, there’s nothing to hold a sense of community together except football.

With 20 million people involved in higher ed, we’re naturally going to be employing some pretty mighty economies of scale. Even my gargantuan alma mater Berkeley, at more than 35,000 students, has got plenty of room to grow to reach the University of Minnesota (about 51,000 students on campus) or Ohio State (58,000). And once you get up to the level of a system, like SUNY (470,000 students) or Cal State (460,000), you’ve moved well into the world of gesellschaft relations. A world in which raw economic calculus demands cheap labor, with no room for intervening affection to humanize decisions.

Back in the day, my dad worked in a huge factory. One afternoon in the late 1960s, 800 men were laid off at a single stroke, two weeks before Christmas. It took him almost a year to get another job, at a little machine shop that employed a dozen men. On the day he was hired, the owner pointed to a tree in the back lot, and said, “That’s for guys who talk about starting a union.” But with twelve people and one owner, there was never any need. He made more money, and had more fun, working at Michigan Machine Tool than he ever did at Continental Motors.

How many of the problems we face in higher ed are really problems of scale? More on that to come.