In Defense of Dining

Chloe Hansen, Opinion Columnist

Modern academia has lost track of the concept of balancing society and intellectualism; the cure for finding it again is to reacquaint ourselves with in-person discourse through the hosting of dinner parties.

This was the initial thought I had when I began considering the topic for this article, and in tracing back my claim I predominantly stumbled across the ideas of Immanuel Kant. If you’re familiar with this German philosopher, it is more than likely due to his “Categorical Imperative” moral theories, his extremist views on truth or simply having taken any intro-level philosophy course in your life. However, most interestingly to me, Kant was also uniquely passionate about dinner parties. He believed that they were the ideal way to balance two concepts he felt were intrinsically against each other: pleasure of the physical body and our human “moral powers” (for more on this, I suggest reading “The Ultimate Kantian Experience: Kant on Dinner Parties” by Alix A. Cohen).

What I found particularly compelling was the idea of balance that is so rampant in Kantian philosophy. For better or for worse, most modern academic thought, as well as lifestyle values, do not commonly emphasize balance. Most of the mindsets that are idealized are branded with taglines and labels like “grindset” and “hustle,” romanticizing productivity above attention to one’s human condition. So too does academia; the internet is rife with study bloggers portraying themselves studying constantly for the sake of production, and almost always they’re shown alone—aloneness being another trait that is romanticized for the sake of mass efficiency.

Personally, however, I have always found myself deeply enriched by the physical discussion of academic material. My best ideas often emerge when I’m being challenged or intellectually provoked by the ideas of someone else. In realizing this about myself, I began to consider; what if there were a space where students could experience the richness that comes from sharing thoughts with one another in a more intimate setting—balancing, as Kant suggests, the physical pleasure of eating with (in this case) academia?

I asked several Whitman professors from the philosophy department their thoughts on how important dinner parties are for students and professors alike, and I ended up with some very interesting insights. Perhaps most interestingly, Professor Zhao wrote that “as an institution, the school should actively seek to sponsor these things, in particular during a difficult time of drastic decline in sense of community.”

Personally, this is why I also believe so strongly in the importance of this type of gathering; we are still reeling, as a college community, from years of intermittent quarantine. Zoom classes effectively severed the connection between academia and socialization and shut them firmly in separate boxes that we are now still trying to pry open, only to discover that we are unsure of our footing when it comes to planning things that combine them again. Professor Zhao continued, “dinner parties help [foster] civility, understanding and open discussions around politics and communal life.”

This sentiment of openness and communality is perhaps needed now more than ever, and it is why I stand eternally in favor of the dinner party, Kantian or otherwise, as a means of (re)uniting people and creating a genuinely safe space for intellectual growth. If you have the space and the means to host, especially as a professor that students look to for academic norm-setting, the best minds of our generation are always starving.