Copyright 1991, Shawn WallaceHas also appeared in Letters to the Editor: The Good Five Cent Cigar: November 21, 1991
Webmaster's note: The Cafe de la Tete referred to in this editorial no longer exists. Years after it stopped operating at URI, it resurfaced briefly at Ginger's Cafe in Wakefield, RI. However, a student-run coffee house (193 Degrees) has been established in the URI student union, and seems to have addressed some of the issues raised in this essay (although it is not known how much support they receive from the university and how much they rely on sales revenue). We would welcome insights from anyone who is involved with that coffeehouse. Our contact information is on the Third Places, South Kingstown, RI web page.
Every Thursday afternoon, the travelling circus comes to the Memorial Union, and every Thursday evening it pulls up stakes and leaves. It's the Cafe de la Tete, a circus of guitarists and poets, coffee and tablecloths, and it's been running through this cycle of setting up and tearing down every Thursday for the past 16 months.
The original conception of the Cafe is encapsulated by the words printed on the side of a Cafe mug: poetry, music, conversation. Poetry, music and conversation all together - not a poetry reading or a concert (the actual entertainment was meant to be incidental), but a place where people could casually meet. For a variety of reasons (first and foremost its transitory nature), the Cafe has fallen short of this original goal. While there are many EVENTS happening on campus, there are very few places where people may comfortably meet, linger and interact. What the university sorely needs is a public life, and that can't be programmed.
Last year in the mainstream media there was considerable discussion of the loss of community and public life in America. Much of the discourse asserted that a vigorous public life was essential to the concept of democracy, because it encouraged an 'educated populace.'
What is a vigorous public life? It's not a calendar full of EVENTS - EVENTS always have an ulterior motive. You know a healthy public life when you see it: people talk to each other; things happen rapidly and often, as social momentum is a sign of a healthy public life; people produce a great deal, artistically and otherwise; individuals find themselves learning more (and memorizing less) and maybe even becoming a little more understanding and compassionate. A university without a public life is a university that stays inside and drinks, except on Thursdays when it goes out to drink.
One of the most important aspects of public life is the space. The gathering space, the public square. I've seen the tentative Memorial Union addition floor plans and they include some promising pre-planned public areas. The recurring problem is that a thriving public area does not (generally) create much income for those controlling the green ledger books. A good public area makes one feel free from the need to buy something, lest one be accused of loitering. This is a significant problem because the Union can make much more money by chaining off prime public areas and renting them out to merchants than it can by opening them up so that people can use them.
An interesting - and related - question hasn't been asked yet, but should be: Why is the Union expanding when there is so much wasted space already? Union Square - the area where the Cafe de la Tete and Coffee Hour are held - is a terribly designed area, and as a result, much of it is wasted. The fact that four people have to be paid to fill the area with EVENTS - to force people to use the area - only underlines that fact.
But the Union and the rest of the campus is changeable. The campus itself is almost 100 years old; a place that grows and evolves over such a long period of time can't possibly be pre-designed to accommodate changing public needs and traffic patterns. Of course things change! More often than not, however, they change for the worse in terms of public life. More often than not it is the economic forces - I'll call them the Economic Forces of Evil - that radically change the community, and for the Economic Forces of Evil, the best change is the most expedient change. Witness for example, the Kingston Emporium, the reconstruction of Upper College Road, the Mackal Field House, and our wondrous Memorial Union. It is the responsibility of students and the administration to balance off the Economic Forces of Evil, to encourage public self-determination.
Recent letters to the editor in the Good Five Cent Cigar indicate that URI students feel they are lacking something - the something which I identify as a public life. A letter of two weeks ago demanded that President Carothers provide more "non-alcohol-related" EVENTS. The recurring "anti-apathy theme" letter has returned several times over the past month, berating the ignorant lazy masses and calling upon them - as always - to "get involved." I don't think that our problem is apathy, as such; it's just that there is no momentum, and it's a daunting task to start something with nothing. Nor do I think that is the responsibility of the administration to entertain us and provide us with things to do. The university is an organic thing that can take whatever form we want it to. Well, to an extent. The administration, however, can be the great facilitator or the Great Hindrance - and the idea that all it will take are "non-alcholic events" and "diversity conferences" is a great hindrance.
So how do we make our public life healthier? There are a few things that I - as a part of the living, changing university - would like to see:
The above are just three humble changes in the status quo, but I feel that they are necessary for the eventual intellectual survival of the university. There are many others. Most importantly, though, we have to recognize the root of the problem; we must stop entertaining ourselves with EVENTS as the social structure of the university crumbles apart around us. No more circuses! No more circuses!