Today's New York Times opinion page features an essay that makes nearly the opposite claim regarding randomly-assigned roommates as your humble blogger (and some of her commenters) made two weeks ago. According to Dalton Conley, the kids today are over-managing their lives! they need more serendipity! and if it doesn't come in the form of a randomly-assigned roommate, they'll never be able to play well with others or appreciate diversity!
Okay, I exaggerate. Slightly. But Conley's essay, in addition to not taking the problems inherent in randomly-assigned roommates very seriously, just isn't an accurate imagining of young people's lives or even the college experience (this, despite the fact that Conley is a professor at NYU). Rather, it's a nostalgic look back at the benefits that Conley himself received from rooming, in the 1980s, with someone very unlike himself--confusedly conflated with a larger and basically unrelated worry about the ways that The Modern World has eliminated serendipity. Conley speaks about how he knows people "who can't bear to eat in a restaurant they haven't researched on Yelp," and laments that "Google now tailors searches to exactly what it thinks you want to find," but from where I sit it sounds like he's mourning the diminished opportunities for serendipity in his own life, or the lives of those in his peer group (do 18-year-olds fetishize Yelp? I think not), rather than providing a realistic picture of life as a young person living among thousands of other young people.
As we age, we do indeed tend to associate more and more with people like us or at least already known to us. We have fixed groups of friends, we have families, we have partners, we have colleagues, and we tend to be fixed more stably in a community or at least in a personal and professional identity. But college freshmen meet people unlike themselves all the time: in the dorm, in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, in the dining hall. Many of them (though certainly not all of them) are actively looking for new interests, ideas, identities, and they turn to their peers (and, yes, to technology) to help them learn more about a particular band, movie-maker, political position, or religious belief.
Moreover, any roommate is different from oneself, just by definition. Even someone who shares all one's tastes is likely to have different habits, personality quirks, and simply to manifest his or her presence at inconvenient times. It's hard for me to believe that a randomly-assigned roommate is actually significantly better at teaching one how to live with other people than a roommate one has had some limited say in choosing. The number of people I know who lost friends over shared-housing drama indicates that "difference" isn't always recognizable from the outside.
Yes, as Conley cheerfully notes in his closing, most people who wind up with "the roommate from hell" do survive, and some may even wind up with "great stories to tell [their] future spouse." But that's hardly an argument in favor of random roommate assignment.