The Social Aesthetics of Colby College

The Social Aesthetics of Colby College

I knew that I wanted to come to Colby before meeting a single student. I walked around Colby with my dad on a beautiful summer day and was in absolute awe that a campus could be so beautiful. It was the last of my many college visits, and I was convinced I’d saved the best for last. I attended a small high school, and Colby’s campus seemed to continue on forever in comparison. The brick buildings coupled with perfectly manicured lawns made the campus seem welcoming and bright, and looking out onto the surrounding area from the steps of Miller I couldn’t help but have an overwhelming feeling of being somewhere of deep importance.

It wasn’t until this research seminar on global citizenship education that I learned what the concept of social aesthetics is, and ever since learning about this concept I’ve found it amazing how much I’ve been able to connect it to my daily life at Colby. Social aesthetics, broadly defined, is how the spaces of a society or group, such as a school community, derive certain understandings about that group as a whole, both to group insiders and outsiders looking in. In “Looking Inside and Out: Social Aesthetics of an Elite School in India,” Fazal Rizvi reflects upon his experience at an elite private school in India called Ripon College. In his research, he points out four main spaces that show privilege. These main spaces are the gate, the main building, the chapel, and the lake.

Reading about this research forced me to look back on my experience touring colleges, and I did some research of my own to confirm some of my theories. I found that nearly all of the schools I visited had all of these spaces in one way or another. The main building was almost always either a student union or a library, and the percentage of the main buildings on campuses that had a clock tower of some sort was shocking. Chapels were regularly present, and every school had some iconic picture a lake or pond on a summer day (or oftentimes fall if in New England) on their website. The gate was represented in a variety of ways, either by a hill, a strong separation from the community, or an actual gate to campus (even if it was rarely used).

While reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh at how much Ripon College reminded me of Colby, especially in Ripon’s gate that everyone must get through to get inside the campus. The gate was named “The Gate to Knowledge” and was constructed not as a means of protection, but to give students a sense of pride every time they pass through them. In the case of Colby, however, this gate is much less physical. A gate represents a separation from one community to another, so at Colby I see our separation from Greater Waterville up on Mayflower Hill is our representation of Ripon’s gate. We are situated above the Waterville community, and from the top of Miller steps one can look down to see just how separated we are from the rest of the community. These steps also perform a similar task of giving students a sense of pride and grandness when they look out over the expanse of the forest.

I was able to spend my January living in St. Petersburg, Russia. During this stay, I lived with a host family, and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on my privilege in ways I hadn’t before. In Russia, I toured many palaces of Russian tsars, and they all had one almost comical way that they expressed their wealth. This commonality was that they had perfectly kept rooms with all of their prized possessions, kept in pristine condition, that they would show guests when they came to visit the palace. Then, in another secret area of the palace entirely would be their actual living quarters. This showed visitors the royal family’s wealth and prestige, and presented a level of wealth that left a significant impression on visiting monarchs. Learning about Colby through the lens of social aesthetics made me feel that maybe the college is putting on a similar display for those who visit.

Even so, with everything I now know, I still can’t help an overwhelming sense of pride and importance every time I stand at the top of the Miller steps.