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When our son moved into a dormitory as a Calvin College student in the 1980s I had already been on the faculty there for fifteen years. But suddenly I experienced the campus in new ways. I had known all along, of course, that there were dormitories, parties, various student services, and the like. But that kind of thing was not a part of my life on the campus. For me, most of what happened at the college occurred in the classrooms and at faculty meetings

When I became an academic administrator at Fuller Seminary in the early 1990s I learned yet more lessons about campus life. During my years as a fulltime faculty member, I don’t think I ever heard any colleague use the phrase “auxiliary services”—a reference to such campus functions as housing, cafeterias, and bookstores. So, knowing that I had a lot to learn—the Vice President for Auxiliary Services now reported to me on a regular basis— I attended a professional conference on the subject.

The memorable session at that conference was for me a seminar on food services for students. The presenter talked about a recent shift in campus culture from “dining” to “grazing.” In my own undergraduate days, for example, we students ate our meals sitting at tables in dining halls, where we engaged in meal-long conversations while servers brought us our food. These days campus food services are typically organized around what the presenter called “grazing stations.” A student goes to the salad bar and sits briefly at a table with, at best, brief social interactions. Next comes the make-your-own sandwich line, or the “hot meal” station. Then dessert is a stop at the frozen yogurt machine, for a cone to be eaten on the way to the next class.

Many students these days come from homes where grazing is a fact of life. Family members live busy lives, and on most days sitting at a meal together is not possible. Meals are often eaten while surfing on an iPhone, or sitting in front of a TV set.

I discuss this pattern in the frequent talks that I give about civility to church groups, campus gatherings and pastors’ conferences. The word “civility” comes from civitas, the Latin word referring to the ancient city-state. Aristotle taught that we don’t properly mature as adult humans until we learn to act in the city’s public square, respecting people whom we encounter there simply because they are our fellow human beings. To reach that stage, Aristotle said, we must first learn to bond with others in kinship—as small children with our own family members. Then we transfer that sense of belonging into friendships with peers. After learning those lessons in close relationships we can cultivate the respect due to strangers whom we encounter in public spaces.

Here’s a practical application to eating today. The family meal has certainly served in the past as an important early workshop in civility. It has been where manners were taught in a very practical way. Sitting for a half-hour or so at a table where we are sharing food with people with whom we may be quite irritated—this can be a formative learning exercise for later getting along with fellow citizens with whom we disagree about important matters.

To think about this is more than to engage in nostalgia for the kinds of meals depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings. I have to admit that the quality of food on campuses is better these days than in my own student experience decades ago. And it is pleasant to have the many “grazing” choices. But something also has been lost.   The pandemic obviously set us back even further, at least temporarily. However, now that we are thinking about how best to get back together again, our experience of physical isolation can present us with opportunities to think new thoughts about what practices might serve to retrieve the benefits that were afforded by old-fashioned academic dining.

And while we are thinking about what we can do about student life in this regard, we might also give some attention to faculty formation. One of my colleagues who is in a tenure-track position told me recently that he and his wife were thinking about the best place for their family to live. “Now that I am teaching mostly online,” he said, “we can reside pretty much anywhere. My personal preference would be to keep teaching where I am but to live near a campus of a school where there still is a strong sense on residential academic community.”

I am fully supportive of what he is considering. I just hope that when he makes the move people on that campus will invite him to sit with them frequently to a share a full meal!

This piece is an expansion of a column published by Religion News Service in March 2017.

Richard J. Mouw

Dr. Richard J. Mouw serves as Professor Emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary and Senior Research Fellow at Calvin University's Paul B. Henry Institute on Christianity and Politics.

One Comment

  • Geoff Beech says:

    Absolutely, Richard. Thank you.
    Commensalism (noun):the act of eating together; table fellowship
    Biblical/Eastern hospitality and the Lord’s Supper come to mind.