Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 10/4/2003 4:56 AM
Random Thought: Hardwired To Connect

I just finished going through a recent report called "Hardwired To Connect." You should read it. It's more than interesting; it's thought-provoking. I first heard of it in a George Will Column. The report is the result a mixture of neuroscience, developmental psychology, the psychology and sociology of religion, social theory, moral and political philosophy. These researchers partner "nature" and "nurture," biology and social convention, family and society, and the individual and community. These partnerships, according to the researchers, impacts on the way in which genes are switched on, how brain circuits develop, and ultimately, on mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The research was sponsored by the Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values.

The researchers conclude that Rousseau, not Hobbes or Locke, was more on target when he said people are by nature social beings and that Donne was right when he penned "no man is an island." According to the findings in this report, basic biology and the operation of our brains indicate two fundamental human imperatives: (1) people are born to bond having an innate need to be close to other people; (2) they long for purpose and for some transcendental experience. These needs for connectedness and meaning are more than mere conveniences. When they are not met the result is not only stifling of abilities and talents, but it creates an inner imbalance and is mentally pathological. These supposedly natural social needs are best met through supportive and encouraging communities that articulate a clear and inspiring vision of the good life and help people to bring that vision into their own lives. The emphasis of the report is on renewal of family life and the social utility of religious affiliation.

Whether the report is based on good science, whether it reflects a bias view promoted by the Institute for American Values' devotion to "renewal of marriage and family life," I cannot say. Nevertheless, it gives me a cause to pause because the logic of the report would extend beyond our families and places of worship.

By logical extension of this report's findings, maybe the problems in education are the result of both an intellectual and emotion failure to meet our and our students' most basic needs of connectedness with other people and a connectedness with a purpose and meaning beyond merely getting a grade and diploma. Maybe what is missing in our educational structures is a vibrant environment of deep connections with nurturing people and ennobling sources of meaning.

Aside from parents, teachers play premiere roles in the lives of our developing youth. It is in the classroom where connectedness, shared meanings, mutual purposes should be promoted, reinforced, and sustained. Yet, they are played down. We introduce by word and deed, and continue to foster throughout a student's educational experience, almost an isolating solitude that has trained students to feel an anti-social "I don't want to depend on anyone for my grade." We focus almost everything we have on earning a good living and focus very little on living the good life.

As I told a colleague yesterday, somehow I get the feeling that we educators in this capitalist country have violated the basic Smithian capitalist Law of Supply and Demand. On one hand, the biological makeup of human beings demand connectedness, cooperation, collaboration, mutual support and encouragement while on the other hand our classrooms do not supply connectedness to other people and moral and spiritual purpose and meaning.

Maybe, just maybe, our students' educational problems are not just personal and individual, but are social and communal as well. Maybe, it's not just them, but us as well. Maybe the way we have structured our classes is unnatural and therefore unconsciously unsettling. The scientific fact of this report, if it is valid, undermines any vindication of rampant, isolated, and totally self-centered, competitive individualism.

Majorie Savage, in her YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN, observes that when students come on our campuses they are not looking for information or wisdom or even guidance. They are looking for friends. They're looking for connections. They're looking for bonds. They're looking for community. They are looking for a cure to their aloneness and loneliness and "strangerness." They want to be less the stranger and less isolated. They want to be more the friend, more noticed, and more valued. They may find all that in going along and getting along when it comes to sex or alcohol or drugs, or being fashionable in dress and behavior, or in joining the brotherhood of a fraternity or the sisterhood of a sorority, or in going out for a sports team, or in running for office, or in joining a club, or in just "hooking up." It's tragic that they seldom find these needs satisfied in our supposedly all important academic classrooms.

In our classrooms, the students are so often like blurred images in an out-of-focus picture. Students commute not just between classes, but between two worlds. Their souls are split no less are ours and they are confused about it. Part of them has been trained to chase after achievement and do questionable things along the way. Yet, part of them yearns for community. The former is the competitive world, the world of comparisons, the world in which they need to be successful and need to be important. It's the world that places emphasis on the grade, the GPA, the scholarship, the Greek bid, and election victory. It is a world that confuses honors, award, selection, appointment with importance. The latter is the world where they reach higher, and demand greater and deeper things. It is the world where the need is to be a good person, to care, to be generous, to matter, to be significant, to make a difference, to do the right thing. It is the world where the goal is to become a beautiful person, to fashion one's life as a work of art as inspiring and lovely to look at as is any great work of art.

In journal entry after journal entry, in small talk after small talk, in deep conversation after deep conversation, I find students struggling. They're told to be hungry for that grade and that honor. Yet, they are hungry for community and meaning. They're told that it doesn't matter how they get that grade, that it's "cool" to cut moral corners and take ethical shortcuts. They sense they want to know how to live so that their lives matter. They're told to blame wrongdoings and mediocrity on the pressures around them. Yet, they truly want help to develop the moral will to resist temptation and to strength of character to deal with demands on them. They're told to sit down, be quiet, and go along. Yet, they want to stand up and be different so they can make a difference. They're told to be fashionable and hide their identity. Yet, they want to reveal their uniqueness. Deep down, when things come out, when things are allowed to surface, when they feel safe, they want want their precious personhood, what is loveable and admirable about each of them, to be seen in their substance rather than in their image.

Maybe I'm prejudiced, but when I see students in the community world, when they are with people who share those treasured moments with them, when they are noticed, cared about, respected, trusted, valued, when they have a sense of purpose and meaning and worth and accomplishment beyond getting a grade, they have a greater sense of themselves and they accomplish so much more. Only this past week, I saw that incandescent power of community in one class as the students presented their Dr. Seuss Project, in another class as the students presented their Bruce Springsteen Project, in still another class as the students presented their Rodin Project, and in a fourth class as the students presented their Dali Project. This past week in seismic conversations with students, I saw how empathy allows us to see the connections between us, making strangers less strange, isolated people less isolated, alone people less alone, depreciated people less devalued.

In an academic culture that values independence, we create such dependence. In an academic culture that values individuality, we create such anonymity. We so often forget that our ability and the ability of students to thrive depend on interrelationships, not on isolation. We throw students into a competitive rat race with each other rather than in cooperative community with each other. We teach them critical thinking skills and generally ignore communication and people skills. We have an unnatural classroom architecture and tradition that barks like a drill sergeant, "Eyes Front!" We line students up in rows, looking at the backs of napes, making them feel like islands, disinclines them to turn their heads to the left or right, directs their attention forward to the professor on center stage, makes it difficult to forge acquaintances much less friendships, reinforces the sense of self-consciousness, isolation, vulnerability, aloneness, and strangeness. In the classroom, connectedness is weakened or thinned out, strangeness is accentuated, aloneness is increased, and, contrary to John Donne's assertion, unnaturally turns each student into an island.

Why is it so hard for so many of us academics to acknowledge that we have a role to play in establishing that sense of connectedness and that search for meaning for beyond getting a job? Why do so many of us harp on "success" and play down or ignore "significance?" Why do so many of us put making a good living center stage and leave living the good life in the darkened wings?

A lot of academics loudly defend themselves by saying they are not clergy or councelors or parents. They don't have to be. They can be just teachers who teach that there's more to teaching than mere information transmission and more to learning than information acquisition and grade getting and more to getting an education than getting a job. They can find ways to "educare," to call forth, and to stuff in simoultaneously. Certainly they can teach that while we can devote ourselves to a life of accomplishing worthy and satisfying personal goals, we can be enormously enriched when we consciously use our talents and time to improve the lives of others. Isn't that the noble mission we each have embarked upon when we became teachers? Is that why teaching is one of the few "noble" professions? Teaching is a sacred deed in which we humbly offer ourselves as servants of something or someone greater. In so doing, we transform and are transformed.

Why do so many of us deny teaching's nobility? Why don't we pass on that nobility of purpose to our students? Why can't our campuses and classes live out connectedness as what may be called "learning communities" or what I would call "connected communities" or what in classes I teach we call "communities of mutual support and encouragement," that treat students rather than subjects as an end in themselves, that are warm and nurturing, that are loving and caring, that connect people, that put people ahead of research and publication, that focus on people rather than on tests and grades, that focus on life outside the classroom as well as the future beyond the classroom and campus, that transmit a shared vision of what it means to be a good person and live a good life, that foster moral and ethical and spiritual development, that promote the ideals of the dignity of each and every individual, that reveal to each student what he or she can be?

Some of my colleagues are really hot under the collar about something they call "corporatization" of education or the "business model" of education. If they want a business model for education, here's mine: The customer IS always right; sell the students the products THEY truly want: community and meaning and purpose along with and beyond credentials.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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