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I belong to something...

December 6, 2013

A year ago, I blogged about a school where my surveys yielded anomalously high scores coming from Grade 8 students and from Grade 8 parents. I should preface this by saying that the opposite is a more frequent finding. Grade 8 students and their parents regularly offer lower ratings throughout my surveys. I attribute this to what I call 'Hormone Hell'. Puberty… remember that?... is an interesting time, to put it mildly. This is the launch of what we refer to as the 'formative years.' Much of what we will become crystallizes in this period launched by hormones. How we cope with these changes impacts significantly on who we become and how we choose to fit in as a part of the collective – be that collective our families, our classes, our school teams, or our place in the larger community as adult members of the working world and society at large.
I was puzzled by these spiking distinctions and, though I took extra time to dissect the data to better understand the reasons, nothing revealed itself to me. Simply put (maybe that's my mistake), there was no logic to it. When I presented the full results, I paused after pointing to what I'd learned, asking the senior team to explain. What were they doing with Grade 8s that was different from all other schools I'd worked with?
Here's their answer. It's so simple that it's brilliant. Seems that, particular to the Grade 8 class, this school has introduced a peer-tutoring program. Every student in Grade 8 is responsible for tutoring another student at the school. Having studied kids going through puberty, they’ve concluded that the greatest associated challenge comes from getting all wrapped up in oneself and one's own misery. I've got pimples, I'm ugly, I'm fat, I'm stupid, everybody hates me, and I don't belong here… or anywhere else for that matter. Belonging is key, both to the student experience in this instance, and to the life thesis presented in this collection of essays. Finding and forging a place for yourself… and feeling that you belong to something larger than yourself. This is the key… to everything.
By mandating the peer-tutoring experience, this school has enjoyed great success in dragging kids outside of themselves and into the role of helping someone else in need. Rather than ignoring puberty, or dismissing it as a necessary evil, the school has elected to purposefully engage these students in larger purpose. The school has created program that expresses the discovery of the self through service to others, rather than through a downward spiral of hormonal navel-gazing.
Grade 8 parents and students, alike, have rewarded this school with remarkable scores.
Call it service learning. Call it preventive medicine. Call it common sense. I call it brilliant. I won't say that the school has 'cured' puberty because puberty is not a disease. It is, however, a meaningful and disturbing distraction for many kids, and their parents. There's a saying about parenting that if we "keep 'em busy, we keep 'em out of trouble." I think it's also true that when we place our kids in a position of responsibility for someone else in need, their passage through Hormone Hell may be more safely navigated.
I am an individual, responsible to myself.
I am a part, responsible to the whole.
These two statements are not mutually exclusive. I can be both an individual and a part of the whole at the same time. This claim no longer holds when we insert the word 'only' after the word 'responsible.' There are not too many Mother Teresa types among us, so that side of the equation poses no risks. There is an entire school of people, however, who argue that they are individuals responsible only to themselves as individuals. Seriously, while Objectivism and its backbone of rational self-interest is an interesting idea, it's just another idea. It is not an idea reflected in the reality of what people are or how they act toward one another in a natural state. While ideas are useful… insofar as they may lead to better ideas… when they narrow our focus in a substantive distortion of reality, their usefulness is diminished to the point of a negative return. Where Objectivists have fallen short is in the reduction of the self to an isolated, disconnected unit. The purpose of the self, they argue, is to survive. Well, this is true of all species and of all individuals. The challenge in this line of thinking, however, is that it denies the inextricable link between 'the self' and 'the other.'
The self, in isolation, is nothing.
I would contend that we are, for all practical purposes, most fully defined by our interactions with others and (with a nod to animism) with the world around us. Without these interactions, I am nothing. Descarte's "I think, therefore I am" declaration falls well short of satisfaction for me.
We are social creatures. We jointly and severally look out for each other. This is the single most important factor in the survival of our species. This is our natural state. We're not defined by whether our personal survival or our personal demise has contributed to the process of natural selection. I don't buy Darwin as a framework for human aspiration. It may well be the accurate description of a process that has taken place, looking backward. As a prescription for human behaviour, however, it's a flawed argument, created on a foundation that disregards the collective requirement for our survival. A very useful debating technique perhaps, but one that leads away from the truth, not closer to it.
This key point of contention is what constantly returns me to the universal need of belonging. Proponents of rational self-interest and of the Antifragile (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb) are in error when they reduce the human condition to reason, to Mathematics, and to Darwin. Their descriptions add value to the conversation, to be certain, but simplify to a point where their pronounced reliance on reasoning becomes no less than irrational.
The human condition is not rational, and is therefore not subject to rational reduction.
This is the subject of whole libraries of books. Suffice to say that I cannot see or define the individual as in isolation from the whole. The moment one understands this point of contention, all that remains is to ascertain our relative points of residence along the continuum, with the rights of the individual on one side and the rights of the collective on the other. I would say, at the outset, that this very description holds within it the basis for yet one more misconstruction. Rights, rights, and more rights. This is what we hear about nonstop from libertarians and anarchists. Just as I cannot see the individual without the collective, I cannot see rights without responsibilities. Objectivists see both rights and responsibilities as pertaining only to the self. I do not.
Herein lies the crux of virtually every political debate we're subjected to today.
I'm a fan of individualism, but only when tempered by consideration of 'the other.' This is how we survive, both as individuals and as a collective. This is responsible individualism.
It is this pairing of rights and responsibilities that shines a light on the flaws of isolated self-interest. The argument for laissez-faire commerce and unregulated self-interest disregards the fact some people are unwilling or unable to refrain from attacks on other people. Laissez-faire commerce and unregulated self-interest may have merit on paper as descriptions of what could be or should be… speaking theoretically, of course. Without appropriate self-regulation or self-governance, however… without consideration of 'the other'… without a framework to protect those incapable of protecting themselves from aberrant and threatening behaviour… the concept is a non-starter replica of the wild wild West… just one more myth we can do without.

Kevin Graham

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