In what is to follow, I advance a very simple thesis. I ask for your patience, your open-mindedness, and your critical thought; without it, my claim risks categorization (and subsequent dismissal) as sacrilege. People: I think we need to ditch the rhetoric of ‘The Quest Community.’ I mean we need to stop saying it—stop calling ‘us’ ‘that’—now, completely, and for good.
Most basically, I worry that the expression The Quest Community serves to rhetorically homogenize what is fundamentally not a homogenous group. By referring to Quest’s students—and sometimes also faculty and staff—with this singular expression, we suggest that we are all part of one thing, that we are all one thing. Our use of The Quest Community ignores and covers up difference at this institution, and while our school is overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, and North American, there is difference—outside of those categories as well as within them. We would do well to use language that acknowledges this.
Over my years here I have overheard, and participated in, numerous conversations about what it means to truly ‘do diversity’ at Quest—to not just have students from different national, political and cultural backgrounds ‘at the table’ (and in the residence buildings, the gym, the promotional material, etc.), but to have open-minded, thoughtful and patient cross-cultural encounters, both social and academic. This is all excellent, complicated, and very much worth discussing. But as a necessary precursor to the advancement of these dialogues, we must stop trying to neatly force this diversity under one linguistic umbrella. As students of critical thought, we must do better than the handholding, Kumbaya-singing, Coca Cola-endorsed version of multiculturalism. I think we could take a step in the right direction by shifting to talking about Quest’s Communities. This is not hollow ‘PC’; language has implications. The way we talk about ourselves both reflects and perpetuates how we think about ourselves. My contention is that using the plural—Quest’s Communities—will express and forward a more accurate self-conception. This matters tremendously.
Not only does the expression The Quest Community obscure difference and suggest (imaginary) oneness, its vagueness risks hiding things that need acknowledging. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell discusses how political language, which he accuses of being vague and meaningless, can “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell finds the language of his time insidious. I, conversely, am not suggesting that anyone invented The Quest Community to hide an evil political agenda. I imagine the term was born organically back in days of a sub-100 studentry. But this is beside the point. Regardless of the innocence of our intentions, throwing around a term as broad, imprecise and unchecked as The Quest Community has consequences. In this case, I think it fosters a kind of communal self-delusion. Our repeated use of The Quest Community creates the belief that there is always already a Quest Community, that its status is somehow de facto rather than delicate. This is simply not so and, worrisomely, this belief can impede the actual, ongoing and challenging work of community-building by making it seem inessential.
There are now 600-and-something students at this university. Relative to standard universities, even to boutique liberal arts colleges, we are small. But we are not that small. I can count on my fingers the number of first and second year students I know, and I do not think this is anomalous. Go ahead and ridicule me for my source, but Shimi Cohen’s Vimeo video on “The Innovation of Loneliness” talks about the natural limits to human group size. “Most humans are just incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 people,” it states. (This, 150, is called “Dunbar’s number.”) When Quest opened, its studentry was smaller than this. Maybe then there was, or could have been, one Quest Community. Maybe. But enrollment numbers have grown and things have changed. The notion of a single Quest Community, and I don’t just mean a Facebook group, today strikes me as little more than a fiction—a sociological and psychological improbability.
So: it is time to rethink what community means at Quest. Call it the pluralization of social life, the birth of subculture, the becoming—or already being—like any other university, where there are the skiers and the gardeners and the keggers and the keeners of psychoanalytic theory, where there are many, and overlapping, communities of mutual interest.
In her recent book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson cites queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s command to “pluralize and specify” in our discourse. Let us take heed. Let us talk about Quest’s communities, and let us build those communities. Let us leave behind a lexical tradition that no longer serves or reflects who and what we are.