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Values Animating Healing

It’s difficult to get through a day at this moment of history without being exposed to some anxiety among those around us. Many people feel that things are a bit “out of kilter;” folks are on edge. Cable news outlets are reporting record viewership; people talk about the need to detach from the continuous news feed. Little of the news they see is uplifting.

Some of this comes from political actions here in the US, but reports from outside the US seem to demonstrate a similar unease. There are reports of higher stress levels among students in higher education. Incidents of conflicts among racial, ethnic and religious groups seem to be rising. People seem afraid to talk to one another unless they already know the other agrees with them on key issues. While the US has seen weakening trust among the people toward institutions, there seems to be a more widespread breakdown of trust among individuals. Questioning the motives of another person seems more acceptable, even expected.

Durkheim forwarded the notion of “anomie” as a negative outlook formed by a society that offers little moral guidance to its members. Some of the examples of stressful events seem to be violations of a set of norms that were uniformly honored in earlier eras – how strangers interact with one another; what defined deference to one another; what allegiances bonded together those in a nation-state or a community or a city block.

Given these developments, higher education institutions clearly have a new obligation. Since they educate the next generation of leaders and the society is exhibiting these new features, they need to devise ways to arm students with the necessary skills to lead in such a society. I’ve written earlier about the importance of skills in talking with those who have different perspectives than you. It seems most important in navigating this new society.

However, the more I reflect on this, it is not merely a set of skills – at least, the skills alone will not improve the society. Real listening to another person requires a set of values animating how we approach another person. The Jesuit notion of “presupposition” seems useful here. It’s necessary to approach another with the respect for their humanity and legitimacy because of our shared origins. Assuming their good will and their attempts to find truth facilitates a genuine listening to them. Because each of us share day-to-day struggles, each of us fails and picks ourselves up, each of us cares about those close to us – we share much of the joys and challenges of being human. Arupe’s call to be “women and men for others” enlarges the group of those for whom each of us should care — from those who are close to us to a much larger set.

Anomie is a state of normlessness that is painful. For norms to be sustainable (or re-established), shared values are key. Higher education institutions, if they are to help prepare students for leadership in such an endeavor, need themselves to be certain of their shared values. In this regard, Georgetown has the great advantage of a set of values that animate our work. Following them, we know why we need to train leaders for a world that has lost its way in the midst of fractured and isolated groups.

7 thoughts on “Values Animating Healing

  1. One solution that used to be employed for healing relational division/detachment (with its negative behavioral consequences) was “the cutting of covenant.”

    The blood covenant of love is a way to heal relations among diverse peoples and individuals such that there will be cooperation and care among those in the covenant relationship. Here’s some preaching on the topic (you’ll need to persevere through the poor quality of the video and through an accent from West Texas):

    I wonder whether there might be a way of “cutting covenant” among the students, faculty and staff such that there would be an establishment of community on the campus that would go beyond merely being “neighbors” by virtue of learning/teaching/working on the same campus. It might be something along the lines of joining a fraternity/sorority, but would be a campus-wide covenanting. Of course, the seriousness of covenant would need to be taught and enforced (through “blessings” and “cursings”). As the preaching emphasizes, it would require overcoming the current cultural socialization that has “civilized” us from a covenant mindset which makes for truly civil relationships.

    For norms to be re-established, shared values are key; however, it also might require shared commitment to each other (a commitment that goes beyond an intellectual assenting to a spiritual binding).

  2. Great techniques. A reminder that God gave man two ears and one mouth to show that one should be used twice as much as the other!

  3. For a full academic year and two summers, I taught Public Speaking at Georgetown’s SFS Program in Qatar. At the time, the great majority of our students were Qatari or Khaleeji ( Gulf region ) and had clearly never been exposed to serious dialectics in public debate. The vertical axis of prior authority was clearly far stronger than the horizontal axis of egalitarian interlocution. I soon conceived of two main techniques to strengthen the horizontal axis : first was what I called ” play-back “, in which you ask two people in overt disagreement to state in turn what they think their opponent has been saying. ( Naturally enough, they had not been truly listening and had to be corrected ). The second technique and follow-through was to ask the opponent : ” I hear what you are saying, but how do I know this is true ? ” The combination of these two techniques proved to be transformative, since it discouraged ego-centered obduracy and encouraged class members to see themselves as being allies at the service of emerging and often open-ended truths.

  4. Good analysis re religion. I think that younger generations especially my Hoya children might be replacing religious values with similar human values. While not based on religion they are based on our jesuit and the Georgetown value of men and women for others.

  5. I’d offer a variation on Provost Groves’s analysis.

    A healthy society needs to value both the individual and the community, and in appropriate balance.

    In our country, individual values are rooted primarily in our governmental institutions. They gave us our Bill of Rights, for example. Our community values historically derived in important part from our Judeo-Christian tradition and, more recently, a wider set of religious traditions. They helped provide a coreesponding “Bill of Obligations,” so to speak.

    I’d argue that individual values are alive and well. There does not appear to be any shortage of persons and groups fighting for their individual rights–as they should.

    The anomie of which Provost Groves speaks has primarily been a phenomenon on the community values side of the equation. The decline of religion in our society significantly weakened an important teacher of our duties to one other. Our commitment to the commonweal has declined correspondingly. The loss of trust, increase in conflict and unraveling of the social fabric we presently observe have naturally followed.

    As a significant return to religion does not appear to be in the cards, we need new institutions to take up the slack and assume the task of teaching “women and men for others.” Provost Groves correctly identifies institutions of higher learning in general, and Georgetown in particular, as being uniquely in position to help with that function. I second his motion that they, and we, do so.

  6. Well said Prof Bensky. As a wise person once said “ the more I know I know the less I know I know.” And then the very wise Prof Of Medicine my second year at Georgetown Charlie Rath said “. I give open book tests in lab diagnosis. You need to learn how to think and be life long learners. 25-50% of the ‘facts’ we teach you will be found to be false 20-30 years from now. ‘“. How true that was and still is.

  7. This post is moving the conversation closer and closer to what the French call ” le noyau dur “, ie.: tough kernel of the relationship between the catch-all ” values ” issue on the one hand, and, with the unexpected word ” healing “, an unabashed perspective of a broken or wounded world that any panoptic view of what surround us, both near and far, knows is the world we live in today. It also strikes this reader that these matters have undergirded the most recent provostial posts in a welcome and felicitous manner.

    The follow-through for us as teachers and cultural mediators, beyond trying to encourage dialogic decency in the classroom ? I think it ultimately gravitates around the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Given the central thread of ” anomie “, a generalized loss of horizon in human relationships, whose modalities are plethoric, it is essential, while valuing and validating the search for knowledge, both theoretical and applied, to constantly recognize and transmit a sense of ” infinite discourse “, the understanding that knowledge itself is a never-ending metamorphic quest and that intellectual ( or social ) arrogance, based on self-complacency and the need for
    ” truth possession ” is the best way to atrophy the search and deepen the wounds of the world.

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