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.

15 comments:

  1. This is beautifully captured Stephen, perfect ...

    And sometimes the "wild duck" has an impact on the group

    "When the wild ducks migrate in their season, a strange tide rises in the territories over which they sweep. As if magnetised by the great triangular flight, the barnyard fowl leap a foot or two into the air and try to fly. .. All the ducks on the farm are transformed for an instant into migrant birds, and into those hard little heads, until now filled with humble images of pools and worms and barnyards, there swims a sense of the continental expanse, of the breadth of seas and the salt taste of the ocean wind. The duck totters to the right and left in its wire enclosure, gripped by a sudden passion to perform the impossible and a sudden love whose object is a mystery ... The barnyard duck had no notion that its little head was big enough to contain oceans, continents, skies; but of a sudden it was beating its wings, despising corn, despising worms, battling to become a wild duck." Antoine de Saint-Exupery's (1995) Wind, Sand and Stars

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  2. yes, a near perfect post, including a perfect first comment Arti. So, is it enough to be satisfied with wild ducks pointing out the escape roots in the holding pens that will enable barn ducks to fly? How can we balance the emotional need for the group (hort hort hort) and the reason for the individual. Is it enough to simply be aware of the potential tyranny in groups? I guess that's all we can achieve - awareness. Thanks Stephen. I'm a barn duck trying to fly, but at times its hard to keep up, and I yearn for the barn again.

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  3. Great post Stephen I will admit to investing alot of emotional energy in the value of the idea/concept of networkedlearning, to remain professionally relevant as an educationalist; by that I mean having skills to manage technology network with my peers remain digitally and information literate employ critical thinking and remain objective passing on the good stuff to my colleagues and students.

    I have to admit the personal language of a group that inevitably reveals itself within social networks does not appeal to me (a turnoff) but accept that it goes with the territory of human bonds and connections within a social context. to put precendence on objective focused communication resonates more for me personally within a professional group/network context, for me emotive communication can be a turnoff to tuning in to the conversation potentially missing out on something useful...for me I appreciate the emotive voice more in an individual's blog not in the group/ network...

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  4. I think that although reason prevails in a network, the networks are made of individuals, those individuals are emotive, the individuals in the network become empassioned. The network doesnt necessarily have the drawbacks of the "Group at any risk" concept, but it has advantages in momentum to gain if enthused with passion and some common understandings like tolerance, being unselfconcious and taking risks in teaching and learning. I dont think common understandings make you a group, but I do think passion and emotion can sit next to reason.

    I think the personal experience, speaking in a personal voice and passion and not being self concious are the attributes needed to teach and learn today.Sparker I see the emotive voice as a turn on in learning and seeing the world, not a turn off. The emotions are important in interpreting the ideas.

    Those speakers on the recent FLNW tour were a network
    of passionate individuals who have expanded the wingspan of Networked learning ideas in their practice.

    The broad networking capability of social software has impacted on how we talk to each other. It means that I can reflect and participate here, right on Stephens blog. I am demonstrating an unselfconciousness in revealing what I think and know or not know. I am motivated to participate and therefore learn. If I thought I had to impart pearls of wisdom everytime I am motivated to participate and learn, I am sure I would not participate.

    I will talk more about these things on my new blog at www.participatecontributelearn.blogspot.com.au where I am working on learning how to apply all the things I am learning.

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  5. Emotive communication makes more sense to me in the context of a personal blog for example, one of the reasons I like video blogging is that my emotions and body lanagugae become more apparent in my communication for example

    Stephen's point in the context of networked communication resonates with me:

    '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'

    It occurs to me emotive language can potentailly distract from the latent potential of a network 'to respond to an increasing set of global crises from a ground of reason.' with the possible alienation of those people freshly exposed to a network who may feel no affiliation to the emotive language.

    Personally I like the idea of respecting the language and tone of a networked conversation by that I mean being dispassionate to a point (objective), the language of an individual's blog as being emotive and 'True' (subjective)

    There is no black and white differentiation on communication style within a network that can be advocated...

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  6. steven parker

    Individuals are the network. Individuals are not dispassionate even if a dispassionate language and tone is used. I really believe we need to be more personal and less dispassionate to connect. Being personal does not take away from reason - it just means hearing and seeing the other person. I take your point about videoblogging!

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  7. I'm not comfortable with the dichotomy you draw between emotions and reason. I think people can get too "emotionally" invested in that distinction. Without emotion, there is no empathy. Without empathy, you assume that there cannot be personal ethics, which means you have to encode ethics in the form of laws. From that, it's a short step to limiting people's freedom, which both groups and networks are quite capable of doing.

    Meanwhile, here I was constructing a critique of networks! :-O

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  8. >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

    Stephen, perhaps you should recite this once a day, and read the forums, and stop driving people away from forums to moderated blogs.

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  9. Great. I like it very much. It says precisely how I think about the world and education. I don't see on this moment how it can be done in the system at my Institute, but I am happy that is can be said.

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  10. arieliondotcom CCK08Tuesday, October 07, 2008

    Thanks for this, Stephen. I, too, have a difficult time thinking of any sentient assembly, whether grouped or networked, as being without emotion. But I do think they have distinctly different emotions and emotional responses in play, no less passionate, only a different variety or vibration, like different vibrations causing different colors or sounds and those different colors or sounds giving rise to different levels/types of emotions.

    When I think of Groups I think of in-focused, like football players in a huddle turned inward, bent forward in their "us-ness", closing ranks.

    When I think of Networks I think of reaching outward, strethcing backward, in a different type of seeking to stretch out join with others rather than struggling to hold onto the core.

    No less passion, just a different vibration, the difference between a grunt of a hug and a song to come join.

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  11. I don't know why a network of reason would be better. It depends on who's reason is the dominant one. Thus, there is a politics to it. Field analysis would show which reason is dominant when. Reason can also be used to play politics, as science is not apolitical.
    Networks also have a materiality and an economy to them. The richer networks can dominate.
    Unless there is a social justice imperative, than networks will soon start to compete as much as nation states, and then we will start again the whole process of distributing resources and transferring knowledge.
    We are also forgetting the performance of identities on various networks that 'individuals' might belong to/participate in, based on different motives.
    I hope the network learning experts will bring in post-structural and post-colonial perspectives.
    Gurmit

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  12. 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").

    Gosto muito..

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  13. "The memory of Jim Jones in Guyana was still fresh (and ‘drinking the xxx Kool-Aid’ has never left the lexicon)." --- one of the few things my country is famous for. jeez!!!

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  14. I wonder if as mentioned there is a reciprocal relationship between emotions / passions, can they spurn reasons or more network involvment? Can groups come together to empancipate and share ideas and leave the constructs of their groups to form these reasoning networks. In the technology world, we have seen many people use their group think and spurn emotions for change...but it is also far more frequent to share the ideas to equate reason that is not shared by the group that one person may have been a part of. I would hope groups exist that have value, courage and understanding but that within those groups we have individuals that share ideas and knowledge that denote reasoning. Its the whole notion of complexity and how are technological ecosystem works. We can be a groups within the ecosystem but we can also be independant of each other, linking our ideas together to create a growing , diverse environment.

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  15. I wonder if as mentioned there is a reciprocal relationship between emotions / passions, can they spurn reasons or more network involvment? Can groups come together to empancipate and share ideas and leave the constructs of their groups to form these reasoning networks. In the technology world, we have seen many people use their group think and spurn emotions for change...but it is also far more frequent to share the ideas to equate reason that is not shared by the group that one person may have been a part of. I would hope groups exist that have value, courage and understanding but that within those groups we have individuals that share ideas and knowledge that denote reasoning. Its the whole notion of complexity and how are technological ecosystem works. We can be a groups within the ecosystem but we can also be independant of each other, linking our ideas together to create a growing , diverse environment.

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