A recovery of community
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt advance an argument against three commonly held assumptions that guide Western cultural discourse today. These are: (1) we are fragile and in need of protection; (2) our feelings must always guide our actions; and (3) we must confront and oppose the enemy without. Rather than creating environments where reason and objectivity prevail for a community, these assumptions have led to a place where political correctness, groupthink, witch hunts, and a culture of grievance dominate. It’s an ugly world, and academia is ground zero. In this course, we have seen these themes developed in the work of Haidt, Taylor, and Noll, among others.
In contrast, Lukianoff and Haidt propose cultivating culture outside our current politicized environment. They argue that:
“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals… [by] seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that ‘feels unsafe’), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality.”
This book highlights certain themes that are (finally) beginning to resonate within academia as frustration with the current climate is peaking. Psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson from University of Toronto is leading the challenge through his provocative YouTube account and via his recent book 12 Rules for Life which has shaken the academic establishment.
Researcher Howard Doughty reviewed Lukianoff and Haidt’s work, and describes their context more fully:
“Postsecondary education in the United States, they conclude, reveals a set of social arrangements in which victimhood is celebrated. It harbours, in the lexicon of American conservatism, a population of “snowflakes.” Campus culture, they say, promotes a level of infantilism that makes students hypersensitive to insults, causes them to cower in the face of contrary opinions and renders them unable to engage in honest, robust discussions of the great issues of the day.”
While reading, I frequently reflected back on the environment I am helping influence while consulting at our small Maritime university. Even in our setting, in a small and isolated academic context, we are influenced by these general trends. Over the past year, for example, we have discussed and are challenged by situations such as:
- Beginning every public event with an acknowledgement of the land belonging to the original First Nations of the area, in our case, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Passamoquoddy First Nation;
- An advocacy group of students, alumni, and faculty affirming the rights of minority sexualities, and mainstreaming specified usage of language;
- Resistance to power and money as being sourced in white privilege, leading to a discrediting of those voices and yet furthering financial impoverishment of the institution; and
- Realignment of the university board from five men to ten women and two men, all new, in the past year.
It’s not that these struggles are wrong; in fact, the conversation around each of these issues has been fascinating. The beauty of our small institution is that we have chosen to be a community first and valuing the voices of community members is frequently upheld in a variety of ways. Do we make mistakes? You bet we do. But we also try to practice love and listening before judging the other or shutting down different opinions. The reality is that we all live with each other (or in nearby proximity). We study together, we eat together, we cook and clean together, we run into each other at the grocery store or on the walking trail. Being in a small, tight-knit community means we have to learn to live together if we want to succeed as a community. You can’t hide when everyone knows your name. You must confront your disagreements and settle issues face-to-face, even agreeing to disagree, or wither away in isolated bitterness. You can’t give the devil a foothold.
This corporate discernment happens in a number of ways:
- Participating in the school of contemplation, every Wednesday at 12.30, where we sit together for an hour and practice different forms of prayer, from Ignatian imagining to Quaker silence to Taizé singing;
- Community members rotating on offering a weekly ‘fireside chat’ and speaking to their passion and area of interest;
- A generally slow pattern of decision-making, involving much consultation and discussion by all members of the community (I admit this is frustrating to me); and
- Perceiving beauty and the imago Dei in each person, recognizing each one offers gifts to the community no matter their rank or status.
Perhaps the current politicization of our Western culture has occurred because we are detached from one another? We lack community, and we feel adrift. The current cultural dysfunction may come from this need to belong, only it’s manifested in a us-and-them way. Reconnecting with God’s Spirit and with each other in community, where diversity is welcomed and not threatening, is the way I perceive to create a new culture outside this abrasive and challenging framework. By being small and on the margins, I think we are creating a way forward.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Reprint edition (New York: Vintage, 2013).
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).
 Greg Lukianoff, and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 14.
 Jordan Peterson website, “12 Rules for Life”, Accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/12-rules-for-life/.
 Howard A. Doughty, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”, The Innovation Journal 23, no. 3 (2018): 2. Accessed on May 16, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/2188533327?accountid=11085.
10 responses to “A recovery of community”
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How is the university dealing with the lack of funding since the change over. Has it been hard to move forward or have the changes brought the school to a better point. When you pointed out how you begin every meeting acknowledging the original inhabitants it brought to mind the song by Midnight Oil from the 80’s, Beds are Burning. Thanks for the insight.
Yours truly is the one leading the fundraising for the ‘new’ school. I think overall it is going well. We seem to be turning a corner.
All the changes we have experienced have been handled well, even though we are totally flying by the seat of our pants. I think with most that there was a recognition we needed to change, and most stakeholders seem willing to trust those of us leading the new efforts forward.
Thanks for giving us insight into the challenge and solutions of working in this Canadian college context. It is interesting to hear the issues and ways they are working to rectify some of them. Jenn’s blog also mentions community. I too have wondered if our Digital connectedness has kept us from engagement in the community. I appreciate you journey and your thoughts on the process. We do all learn through the experience of others.
Yes I think in 50 years we will look back on this digital age and rue how it distorted our societies. There are many (technical) benefits, even this course is a great example, but managing pixels is different than relating to flesh-and-blood.
Great post as usual Mark! I enjoyed the quotes you highlighted and how they talked about how we are creating infantilism and hypersensitivity in our young people. It was also interesting to hear about your experiences at the Maritime school (wondering if this is Maine Maritime), ironically I had never heard of this school until my client talked about going there a couple weeks ago. Sounds like an interesting place and the fact that it is not sheltered from the dramatic trends in our culture. Glad they have your help navigating it all, and I’m sure you bring God’s truth to the equation to combat the untruths (imparting a little CBT) 🙂
Community–so true. Real and authentic. Well written!
That is one reason why I have enjoyed this Cohort so much. I think we have good community. At least I hope we do. I feel connected. Fox does a good job of fostering community, but the actual connection is our responsibility. I love seeing us connect outside of class–visiting each other, Facebooking, etc. Although I am not sure Facebook is real community (grin).
I also appreciated your reminding us of white privilege. I never want to forget the lessons of Cape Town…
I liked the ethnographic image at the beginning of your post. Did you take the picture?
Excellent review and then right into your linking it to your dissertation and marketplace ministry in philanthropy.
Good job pulling Doughty and Peterson into your outside review of the authors work. I used to eat coal as a youth who slept in the bottom drawer of chest in a flat in Ayre, Scotland. I ran up and down the street, rang doorbells, ate coal, and kicked out the kitchen window before my mother’s mother said, “give him a jar of peanut butter and a spoon.” My parents, post-depression era, let me play outside, get dirty, and suffer the consequences of my youthful actions.
Thanks for citing the Pauline principle, “You can’t give the devil a foothold.” Amen, you have keen vision and insights into the principalities and powers that influence social phenomenon’s like this one.
Thanks for another great post!
I loved your explanation of the college context you are assisting with. I believe you are correct that genuine community, even with all of its challenges, fosters a willingness to work through issues in a way that those in this week’s book were unable to do. I am not sure how transferable that model is to larger institutions but it would be worth considering as it seems pretty clear that students are often neither arriving or leaving with the critical thinking that colleges were initially tasked to provide.
Hi Mark! Your blog is fascinating and I am so glad you took some time to explain the culture of your university. You make some interesting points about your safe space and sense of community…all of these do create safety and trust. It reminds me of Clinton’s book, “It takes a village to raise a child”. The real rub comes when you have a community of very different personalities who don’t create community – then there’s zero tolerance and anger. Such an interesting time we live in. I have to say I was also fascinated by all the change at your university! Overwhelming!
Very insightful Mark. It’s cool to see how you identified all the change that has been somehow connected to you in the last year. All of these arenas have the possiblity of being very coddled and filled with the three untruths. Great point about corporate discernment. My fear is that despite this discernment, one small mistake can be fireable. Where is the allowance for growth?
A few years ago Bill Maher used the N word on his broadcast, and I thought he was toast. Most people are with just that one mistake. However, somehow he recovered from it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnwiYdFaRfk . (obviously bad language warning)