Dr. Grauer's Column - Propinquity
Propinquity (pro·pin·qui·ty, /prəˈpiNGkwədē/) is a word I discovered on accident.
I tend to be friends with my neighbors and colleagues, and the people I bump into a lot. It makes me familiar and drawn to them more. The people in the next office over are by far the most likely to go along with my neurodivergence and with jokes that only I think are funny. It’s propinquity. Say it three times. Get comfortable with it, because it impacts you every day.
In social psychology, propinquity is one of the main factors leading to interpersonal attraction. It refers to the physical or psychological proximity between people. The greater the degree of propinquity, the more likely that people will be attracted to each other and become friends. As a teacher, I learned early on how the opposite of this is equally true, and this has had an essential and strategic impact on the whole development of The Grauer School. Read on.
The first school I helped start was founded by a well-to-do couple. They bought 18 flat acres which were contiguous with more flat acres of adjacent properties. It was a vast and impressive San Diego landholding that would have been the envy of any school developer. Still, even with this huge advantage in prime land, they never managed to get close to full enrollment, and their “school climate” never seemed warm. There never seemed to be widespread connection among their students, and only after I failed to acquire such an amazing property myself, was I was able to learn why.
Once permitting their land, the well-to-do couple purchased 12 portable, relocatable classrooms and lined them up in a long row along the eastern edge of the rectangular property. At the buzzer ending each period, kids plodded out into a huge void where forming patterns was nearly impossible. Many of the kids looked alone and groupings looked sparce.
When I finally managed to purchase our five acres of land, two of it was prime, undisturbed native coastal sage that we left alone, so we only had three developable acres. I had wanted seven. There have been many unplanned consequences of my inability to get “enough” land.
Once we had our land for The Grauer School, David Meyer and I purchased six portable, relocatable classrooms and put them in a circle, or something like a triangle. I wanted everyone to feel enveloped or cradled inside our campus. It probably seemed inefficient to some people. I sometimes thought of it like circling your wagons in an old western movie, for safety.
Propinquity is usually thought of in terms of functional distance—that is, the likelihood of coming into contact with another person—rather than sheer physical distance. When the Zenbells sounded to softly mark the end of each period on our new school campus, I started noticing that kids drifted out into the middle, and it looked something like a dance. Kids and teachers could not help but feel directed towards the middle of our campus quad—there was nowhere else to go. They swirled into small gatherings forming like eddies. On our campus, you are rarely alone. Even our sports field is small and bounded by a lush, green hillside, so games feel inclusive, sort of like you are in someone’s home, but an extremely cool home. To this day, when I see students running out onto a regulation soccer field, they tend to look tiny and insignificant unless it’s a big game with crowds all around the sides. I like our small field better for the purposes of connection.
Propinquity can lead to a kinship between people, or a similarity in nature between things. We are all a part of something, like being in the same raft together. When we replaced our portables with permanent structures, we did not fail to employ what we had observed. Most classes naturally funnel most of the students into our small, treed quad with its rolling grass. All kinds of kids are more likely to bump into all kinds of other kids, and interacting across groups becomes routine—not that it’s always easy. Our trees are growing in, and nothing is more heartwarming to observe than students gathering under their shade, eating lunch, continuing their studies, or sharing a break.
Our observations are well borne out in research. When asked (on anonymous surveys), our students defy the norms on questions like, “I connect with others outside of class,” “I feel like a real part of this school,” and “I can really be myself at this school.”  Sure, large schools have many more students and “types,” but availability of others is not the same as access to them. David Riesman portrayed this in his sociological analysis with a title that speaks for itself, The Lonely Crowd, in 1950, also the year I was born.
In 1950, Einstein gave the world an unforgettable image of human separateness: “He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest,” he wrote. “— a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” So much of the architecture and landscape architecture we find on campuses only serves to enhance this delusion. Modern cities and a great many school sites have been developed to control or dominate both people and nature rather than connect them, promoting Einstein’s delusion.
On The Grauer School's campus, once you enter through the Tolerance Gateway, you find yourself hugged on all sides by coastal sage, or the shape of our architecture. We feel a greater kinship with nature and to one another that way, and we have wrapped our central quad with treehouses and shade sails, a swing set to kick our feet out above it, and trail markers to guide us through it all. A great campus is our cradle, our sense of emotional safety, our spiritual lifeline, our interdependence, and our warm sense of propinquity.
If I bump into you on campus, remember that’s a good thing.
 2022 Challenge Success survey program (Stanford University)
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