In 1912, French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term “collective effervescence” as part of his theory of religion. He argues that, in religion and life, there is a dichotomy between the profane and the sacred. The profane is mundane — studying, going to class, running to CVS, grabbing a bite at the dining hall before an exam. But the sacred comes about when the congregation, ie. the student body, comes together in worship — Boston College’s Marathon Monday, Miami University’s (Ohio) Green Beer Day, Northwestern University’s Dillo Day, UCSB’s Deltopia.
What makes these events special is not the specificity or strangeness of the traditions because, let’s face it, green beer sounds like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. What makes them special is the fact that everyone — the nerdy kid in your advanced chem class and the fratty, Pit Viper-wearing bro in your Intro to Whatever class — is invited. Everyone is included. These events make colleges stronger, and they make their students stronger, too — because a school that drinks green beer together stays together.
Religion, like college life, is a social phenomenon with a highly specific dogma. While a religion hosts a core set of values that are meant to saturate the life of an individual follower, college living requires its students to live in a distinct manner as well. While religion might suggest to its patrons that they give a certain amount of time to volunteer work, college life suggests that students might find an internship each summer between school years. And while a religion might ask for alms during a worship service, a college might ask you for exorbitant amounts of tuition. You get the gist.
This divide between the profane and the sacred might have been a staple of Durkheim’s theory of religion, but it’s a polarity that serves a purpose in many other communities and certainly one that holds true on a college campus.
According to Durkheim, profane tasks are menial. They are tasks generally geared toward survival and everyday living. In college, dramatic as it may seem, survival is placed on your shoulders for the first time in your life. In the blink of an eye, you are responsible for feeding yourself, buying necessities, managing your own schedule, and, yes, putting fitted sheets on a bed all by yourself. And while all students must deal with the pain of a CVS run when they are deathly ill with whatever strain of the frat flu is going around that week, these activities are generally done alone.
The sacred, on the other hand, are those rare occasions where the collective group finds time to gather together, regardless of the reason. At college, these are things that the collegiate coterie organizes around — tailgates, football games, beginning-of-year festivals, end-of-year festivals. For Durkheim, the profane and the sacred are inextricably linked; the mundanity of everyday life is fueled by the rarity of sacred moments. Students look toward their colleges’ special traditions — the moments when they can escape the monotony of profane, everyday living and exist in sacred synergy and participate in collective effervescence.
At the core of Durkheim’s term, collective effervescence is effervescence — a word that is often used to describe the way that liquid bubbles and fizzes. Like the way that bubbles rise and collect in liquid, the monotony of everyday life in college builds and builds until it overflows in these moments. Students, who might spend days on end in different lecture halls and labs, never coming into contact with each other find common ground when they can rejoice in celebrating the fact that they share the experience of their specific college together.
However, in a semi-post-pandemic world, there has inevitably been a loss of the sacred. During times unprecedented filled with toilet paper bulk-buying and solo sourdough bread baking, group events, and gatherings were pushed to the wayside — buried in a trashcan beneath used masks and COVID test kits of various efficacy. As we hunkered down inside, live events — the ones meant to bring us together as communities — suffered.
For those of us now in college, we watched as proms moved online, graduations were live-streamed, and once beloved school traditions became Zoomified. When the world re-opened, perhaps we all assumed that things would go back to the way they were. But something had permanently shifted. Suddenly being together was the novelty, and isolation was the norm. The world seems to be having a hard time going back.
Take Northwestern University, for example. Recently, Mayfest Productions, the student-run organization that puts on Northwestern’s Dillo Day, the largest student-run music festival in the nation, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Northwestern that detailed their fears for the future of Dillo Day under the school’s new administration. Dillo Day has been a staple of Northwestern life since long before the current administration and “strives to bring people together through music and seeks to curate diverse, inclusive, and accessible spaces while creating experiences for all to enjoy.” At such an academically rigorous institution, days of organized fun are few and far between. So when days like Dillo Day roll around, you can imagine how much the students rally behind them.
When Mayfest Productions published their op-ed in the Daily, relaying their fears for the future of Dillo, students responded with overwhelming support for the organization and outrage toward the administration for threatening the sanctity of their special event. Student support for such events runs deep. It’s almost as if humans are built for and thrive on connection.
There may have been valid reasons from the administration for failing to support Dillo Day as they have in years past — perhaps it was the near-impossible task of managing the well-being of thousands of young adults at a group event where typically dangerous college behaviors like binge drinking and drug use may be taking place. But, maintaining the physical safety of students is one part of the equation. What about maintaining their mental health? College students are part of an age demographic of U.S. adults with the highest rates of mental illness in the country. And on college campuses, where students live in close capacities and form robust bonds, when one person suffers — the collective suffers.
The organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant has written and spoken about the need for collective action and togetherness, especially because of how much of it we lost out on during lockdowns. According to Grant, humans tend to think of emotions as a solitary experience — I am happy, I am sad, I am angry, I am lonely. But in reality, our emotions are interwoven with the emotions of others. This isn’t to say that you can’t find happiness in solitude, like while reading a book or watching a comfort movie, for example. It’s just that true happiness occurs together. Grant cites research that shows that in cultures where people pursue happiness collectively, they are predisposed to higher rates of well-being.
Emotions are infectious. And it’s not just the positive ones that permeate social spheres. The same is true of negative emotions. If someone you are close to or that you share a living space with is depressed or showing signs of other mental illnesses, the chances that you are at risk as well become higher. Consider college students who lie sleeping feet away from each other in minuscule dorms with strangers for the better part of four years, who share showers and toilets and work together for hours at a time in small study rooms. Like frat flu can spread like wildfire through the cramped hallways and poorly ventilated air shafts of dorm buildings — so can the emotional state of students. Even anonymous apps like YikYak and Fizz, where students share thoughts and opinions on the latest campus happenings, contribute to the emotional state of students. When one student is in pain, it sends out a ripple of emotion that impacts even the least connected students.
For this reason, colleges need to prioritize orchestrating, or at least upholding, traditions that invoke collective effervescence — for both the sake of their students and the longevity of their institutions. Oversight is fine and perhaps even necessary. Colleges have the right to place restrictions and stipulations on these events to manage risk, but removing support or funding away from them is a mistake that will impact both institutions and their students for the worse.