Thursday, October 05, 2006

That Group Feeling

I still remember Vacation Bible School, at the Christian Reformed Church. I’d take an almost two hour bus ride each way, winding my way through the farm towns east of Ottawa until we arrived at the church on Russell Road. The lessons and the songs were OK, but the best was reserved for the noonhour.

That was when we all gathered in the field outside – it was the middle of summer, after all – and worked on our football team. We were the Water Buffalos and we had our team chant, “Hort! Hort! Hort!” We never played any other team, but instead spent the two or three weeks of the school scrimmaging among ourselves.

It was because of the Water Buffalos that I wanted to return, and I was disappointed to find that I would not be welcome the following year. As I understood it, there was something about needing to actually be religious to go to VBS. It seemed unfair to me; I believed what I believed, and didn’t believe what I didn’t believe, and there wasn’t much that was going to be done about that (my career as a Sunday School teacher met the same fate for the same reasons).

There were some intimations that were I to develop religion over the winter I would be welcome back, but they didn’t press and I didn’t change. I was about the age for summer camp by then, and soon the Water Buffalos were just a dim memory. But that group feeling never left me – nor the memory of the price I would have to pay to join.

It wasn’t a big deal at the time, really. All through my school years I was in and out of religious denominations like a substitute running back. There was my time as an Anglican alter boy. My time as a Pentecostal evangelist (I even went to a church retreat in Peterborough with them, where I played – you guessed it – more football). I dabbled as a United and poked my head in the door of St. Catherine’s. I still remember discussing the game with the priest as I was trick-or-treating one Halloween. “Football,” he exclaimed. “It’s the greatest game in the world.” I didn’t much like it, I said.

I never did pursue a football career but team sports remained for me – as they did for every Metcalfe boy, past and future, that ever lived – the cornerstone of my social life. Oh sure, there was the debating team and the chess club and the Reach For The Top team and even the drama club, but the only teams of consequence were the sports teams. This is why, 25 years later, when I attended my high school reunion, I found my life there wiped from existence. The true stars of my school were the tall blond athletic Dutch kids, the Vriends.

The less said about my history with teams in Metcalfe, probably, the better. The soccer team was particularly brutal. I was placed on it because I finished 4th in the school-wide three mile run (and once ran a mile in under five minutes – too bad we never had a track team). Nobody ever thought to ask why I was such a good runner; I was placed on the team for two years, never played a single minute, and was regularly roughed up by the rest of the team (the details of the shorts incident are best left out of a family column). Because I was the weakling, the runt. Because I was different.

Amazing that I persisted. Amazing that I showed up for every practice, every game, for two years, even when my shorts were ripped to shreds and my shoes had huge gaping holes in them. It was that time of life, I suppose, when I would risk anything to belong. To risk anything for that team feeling.

Happily, life is not the battleground that characterizes high school locker rooms, and I did eventually find fellowship and spirit. With the computer operations team at GSI, until new managers were imported from Texas and all our groups broken up. With radical leftist journalists at university, until I graduated and was sent to Edmonton. With various executives at the Graduate Students’ Association, until the time came to move on. With, even, the e-learning group here in Moncton, until it was dismantled.

To belong. To move as one. To operate in synch, one purpose, one goal. I understand. I know, I have felt, the sense of belonging such a thing. The joining together. The feeling of being valued, of being vital. Part of the team. All for one and one for all. Oh I know, and honestly, still yearn for that team feeling. Despite the risks.

It’s funny, though, how our emotions can cloud our other senses (I am told: first comes the thought, then come the emotions – but it’s the emotions that spur to action, the emotions that give meaning and value – as Hume said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions").

While still a radical leftist journalist, I once did a fairly in depth exploration of a thing called the Hunger Project, and consequently, Erhard Seminars Training (EST). This beame a longer look at cults (and a great feature article) and a nice compliment to my knowledge of the logical fallacies, which I was also developing at the time. And what I discovered there seems to be the most natural thing in the world: how the desire to belong to a group is manipulated in order to subsume one’s sense of individual identity, individual well-being, and even one’s rationality and reason, in order to join the group.

Recent years have been bad years for cults. The memory of Jim Jones in Guyana was still fresh (and ‘drinking the xxx Kool-Aid’ has never left the lexicon). David Koresh would take down his Branch Davidians in a hail of explosions and gunfire, echoed a couple of years later by Timothy McVeigh. Then there were the Heaven's Gate suicides who thought they were traveling to space.

But there is nothing new to what these cults have been doing. We’ve all seen the movies that begin with the military boot camp experience. “First you break ‘em down, then you build ‘em up.” Sensory and sleep deprivation. Being constantly on the move. Recitation of the group mantra. The suffering of hardship together. These bind a few loosely connected humans into a group – it works nearly every time, and if there are some misfits that need to be dealt with harshly, well, that simply gives the group something to bond over.

I’ve seen it over and over. The ‘pods’ we had in grade five (me, Jane, Brenda and Chris – we were the best, the brightest, and even had charts on our desks to record test ‘victories’). Various Cub and Boy Scout troops and events – I still remember the triumphant entrance made by the other group after the overnight at camp Opemikon, the entrance of all six members of the group bearing a canoe that had been absolutely destroyed by the rapids. Lifelong memories, that.

We are – as critic after critic has reminded me since my ‘network’ talk – social animals. We are beings that not merely want, but need, to stick together. That is why we have families, religions, teams and nations.

And we are. For humans, being in a group is a survival tactic. Stand in the bush alone in the middle of the night (do it! I have) and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not simply that we feel isolated and vulnerable: we in fact are isolated and vulnerable. Most anything in that bush larger than a rabbit can both outrun and outfight us. Many things climb trees better than we do. And heaven help us should we run into hostile humans.

We need the group – we need it to survive, we need it at a deep and primitive level. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Until…

There comes a certain point where our group identity becomes more of a burden than a blessing. Different people might draw this line at different points. Some draw the line at religious, ethnic and nationalist fanaticism, the sort of mass mania that can lead to fascism, war and mass murder. We all know the stories. Others draw the line at anti-social behaviour closer to home: the cults and the gangs, the terrorist organizations, the cartels and warlords, the motorcycle clubs.

So where is that dividing line? Where functional and healthy becomes dysfunctional, obviously. Somewhere between (most) football teams and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Somewhere between family bonding and wiping out your neighbours with machetes.

In my books, that line is the line between reason and emotion. To put it most simply, groups are based on passion while networks are based on reason. Groups meet our need to belong and to survive, while networks meet our need to connect and learn and to know. In a group, passion drowns out reason, in a network, reason drowns out passion. In places where passion and emotion should not prevail – when building bridges, say, or launching space shuttles – groups should not prevail. In places where passion should prevail and is even an asset – in team sports, in family bonding - groups should prevail.

When we look at learning, therefore, and when we ask which model should prevail, the group model or the network model, we are asking fundamentally what the role of our educational system should be. Should it be to foster an emotional attachment to a group, be it a nation, religion, or system of wealth distribution?

This is not as straightforward a question as it may seem. Certainly, the attachment to a group plays a major role in religious education, whether the instruction be moderate or extreme. In the United States, students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, an explicit affirmation of the role of schools in forming an affiliation to a national entity. Schools may form around family groups, community groups, ethnic groups. There is no shortage of people wanting schooling to fulfill not only a learning but also a socialization function.

And this, then, is where passion in schooling begins to subsume reason. This, then, is where the teaching becomes less a matter of cognitive function and more a matter of indoctrination. Or call it what you will. But when the fostering of allegiance to a group becomes a major, or primary, function of education, then the traditional agenda, thought of as learning, is left behind.

To those that believe schools should foster good citizens (or soldiers, or Muslims, or factory workers) what is more important on graduation is not that the student can think, reason, learn and know, but whether the student is relevantly the same as the rest. The offering of standardized tests, far from fostering learning (and its worth noting that no amount of evidence on this front has swayed adherents even slightly), is intended to foster groups, group identity, and sameness – sameness of curriculum, sameness of the educational experience (if there are specifics to be learned, Disney, Fox and MSN can fill in the details later – what is important now is the receptivity).

The terrible danger of this is, as I allude above, that people will do anything, take any risk, in order to be part of the group. And those who for one reason or another fail to meet the group standard are dealt with harshly and sometimes brutally. How brutally? Well, consider the case of the homosexual in Wyoming, tortured and then hung on a fence, left to die. Consider the gang of young girls in Vancouver ganging up on and killing a member or their class. Consider the volence exerted on students at Canadian residential school against First Nation students who ared to speak in their own language.

There was a time, when wild animals were a genuine threat and when tribes would raid, enslave and kill each other, that this aspect of learning played an essential role. But today, it threatens us all.

We can no longer afford dogmatic tribalism. That is not to say we can no longer afford groups – we want to continue to have sports teams and families and friends. But in matters affecting economics and finance, environment, government and nations, we can no longer afford group-based tribalism. The implications of subsuming reason to emotion in a complex society should be apparent.

They should be apparent at a national and international level, where the prevalence of group identity has led to disasters like the second world war, the Cultural Revolution, and the genocide in Rwanda (to name only a few). Where the subsumption of reason to emotion and passion has led to widespread beliefs in fictions – the continued resistance to measures to combat global warming, the rise of religious fanaticism and terrorism, the sanctioning of torture by national governments. These are not political issues: they are a headlong clash between people who identify most strongly with their particular group, and people who look at society as a whole, between people shoes beliefs are based on emotion, and people whose beliefs are based on reason.

It seems clear to me that in endeavours where we, as a society, would prefer reason to prevail over emotions, we should prefer to organize ourselves as networks rather than as groups. It seems additionally to be clear to me that education is probably one of the most critical areas where this needs to be the case, as it will be necessary for citizens of the future to be able to respond to an increasing set of global crises from a ground of reason, rather than emotional attachment to a group.

I want groups to continue to exist. I want that feeling of unrestrainedly shouting “Hort! Hort! Hort!” in a suburban field, of forming a bond with a group of friends, of feeling the strength and support of my community and my family. But not at any cost. Not at the cost groups, unrestrained, can inflict on the outcast. Not at the cost that indoctrination, practiced as a theory of learning, can inflict on a society and on a planet. Not at the cost the tribe mentality, as exercised in the schoolyard, can inflict on an individual.