Our Dysfunctional Haverworld

Our Dysfunctional Haverworld
As we seniors graduate and head out into the world, one of the things I bet most of us will seek is community. This seems to be one of the requirements for a sustainable society: one that is adaptive according to small, diverse regions, so that local conditions are met with appropriate technologies, and one that functions with a strong ethic based on social ties. In my future I want to feel I am included in and contributing to a supportive, caring and ethical community, whose values of sustainability determine our relationship to nature. I have not found this at Haverford College, as a collective society and an institution. (I hope you all can relate to this from Swarthmore as well. I doubt the two are really very different.)
In fact, Haverford has helped me define what I do not want to be a part of--a large corporation that deals in the currency of its own prestige as well as its funding, concentrated only on maximizing the profits of this kind, rather than valuing the equity and justice that we have agreed should overrule economic decisions. Al Gore's comparison of US society to a dysfunctional family translates perfectly to the society at Haverford. This helps to explain the lack of ethics concerning justice and sustainability, and suggests that there is hope to resolve these problems.

At Haverford and Swarthmore we embody the Cartesian model developed in the scientific revolution that focuses on the separation between humans and nature, mind and body. Our colleges contain an extreme version of what Gore calls "the disembodied intellect"(524) in which we value our abstract academic thoughts above all else, as we "encourage the fullest expression of thought while simultaneously stifling the expression of feelings and emotions"(524). This degrades the quality of our college community in two ways: it represses our ability to relate to each other in intimate, personal ways and to talk about our true, deep identities, and this erases our differences and our means to create action, diminishing our initiatives to take power and make change on our campuses.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is last week's class. As classes go, our seminar gets into unusually personal material, and brings out unusually personal responses. Being a small class we know each other fairly well and are comfortable speaking our true minds. However, our voices almost always remain in the realm of the intellectual, giving our discussions a certain degree of safety and removal from our true feelings. Last week, only when we felt we had brought that intellectual discussion to a close, did we feel it was appropriate to talk about ourselves. And remember how the whole tone of the dialogue changed, even though we were talking about essentially the same things? Suddenly we were talking about ethics and sustainability, but we were speaking from the heart and relating to each other through our own stories. I do not believe we excluded the analytical elements of the course material in our personal discussion. Class time in general would be incredibly more valuable and productive if it were normal to integrate analytical tools with personal experiences, and our thoughts with our emotions. I could feel the potential in last week's class, but also I think the lack of this integration has been devastating to many students at our colleges.

In keeping with Gore's metaphor of the dysfunctional family, I see how our insistence that only intellectual pursuits contribute seriously to our colleges' ratings causes the painful denial of the real, living experience. We gradually neglect the extracurricular parts of our lives as we spend more and more time studying. For example, before I came to Haverford I was active in environmental organizing and in an intense community of music and politics, neither of which were related to school. At college, I have spent less and less time focused on those important parts of myself because I do not have time left after studying. My whole world exists here, at Haverford. As I came to live at college and live the same daily life as my fellow students, I found myself speaking and thinking about school, classes, and academics, never speaking about the city where I live, and therefore never thinking of that world of friends who are not upper-middle class, white, and overeducated to the point of intellectual disembodiment. This has cut me off from much of the personal experience of emotion, pain, and community that made me who I am. This is the "loss of our spiritual lives"(525) described by Gore. I have watched my fellow students at Haverford and myself become addicted to studying. Students at Haverford avoid the personal interactions that would make us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable by turning to the distraction of studying and intellectualizing our feelings when these discussions do occur. The discomfort we avoid would come from exposing both our own emotions and our lack of compassion for people different than us, with regard to race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects. This addiction to studying is reinforced by its functionality: focusing on success at college translates into prestige and financial success afterwards. We students buy into the motivation that drives the college as an institution, as well.

Our addiction to studying and intellectualizing also protects us with the silence that develops, allowing us to refrain from communicating. Whether we call this the Honor Code, or merely I Have So Much Work, this is the set of rules that develops to govern our behavior towards each other, as happens in the dysfunctional family. We watch what we say, trying not to offend anyone, setting up rules and norms regarding political correctness, our personal lives and pasts, and our daily interactions with each other in class, in passing, and in socializing. In this way, the communication among our college society as a whole is sufficiently distant and uncompassionate that we turn to codependent relationships for validation. At Haverford so many students intend to merely date one another, but rapidly become unable to spend even a minute apart. This codependence we call Havermarriage, and know it is rarely intentional.

The dysfunctionality of Haversociety is especially debilitating to groups who are marginalized in our elite culture: women, students of color, queer students, and all other groups in the minority here. I believe that the lack of social warmth causes Haverford women especially to be quiet and passive, lacking the self-confidence to declare their opinions and feelings, especially as people who are culturally expected to provide the social aspects of a family or community. The drive to climb the hierarchical ladders to success often feels less natural to groups who have been traditionally marginalized in mainstream culture. Women and minorities often feel outsiders to the culture determined by these rules and addictions developed in our dysfunctional college society, and so we are the ones who fill the place of the children in a family, at the bottom of the hierarchy. As Gore describes this, these people "quietly internalize the blame for our civilization's failure to provide a feeling of community and a shared sense of purpose in life"(529). Haverford students sense the shared pressure to succeed in the upper economic tier of US society, but we do not sense a shared spiritual purpose. This alienation is more easily ignored by those who easily take up the intellectual addiction, and is borne most painfully by those of us for whom the addiction does not come so naturally.

As we replace personal internal validation with that coming from our college society, we are rewarded only when we do not rock the boat, and when we prove ourselves through acceptance at high-powered jobs or graduate schools upon graduation. We obsess about these goals in order to avoid "direct experience with real life"(Gore, 530). However, according to the model of family dysfunctionality, there is hope for us! Our dysfunctionality and alienation derive from the culture of the group, from behaviors that are passed down to us from both our adult superiors at the college who dictate our work and from the students before us who contributed to the cultural rules. As individuals we are all OK and all have the potential to realize a true, ethical community. Our problems are "subject to healing and transformation" (Gore, 528). By confronting the rules and standards that govern our behaviors and interactions with each other, we can overcome them. If we collectively feel the pain that we currently impose on our marginalized members, we can begin to create new stories and traditions that remind us to be ethical and just. This requires a conscious effort from all students AND all faculty and administrators. It must be a choice to change the currently elitist and exclusive nature of a top liberal arts college.

As you can see, I view our schools as an extreme version of the phenomenon that Gore describes as belonging to modern US society as a whole. If mainstream society intellectualizes life, imagine what we must do to it, living as we do on academic pursuits. We saw that this dichotomy is tied up in our dichotomizing humans and nature, viewing them as completely distinct. Just as, in truth, many cultures other than our modern European one do view humans as located within nature, as a part of nature that interacts with all other parts, I see no reason why we should not fully integrate the experiential and abstract parts of our education. In exploring the lack of community at Haverford I have not yet delved into the lack of sustainability at Haverford, which is involved in this same dysfunctionality. This is obvious in the environment with which we surround ourselves: we are so separate from nature that we must live at a country club, in which a large manicured lawn is maintained, where only strategically-placed ornamental trees provide a clean and tidy version of forest. We are committed to overconsumption in our extravagant use of paper, purchases of products to decorate our rooms and clean ourselves, and waste of food in the large cafeteria. I notice that most of us in this class have removed ourselves from these aspects of college culture as much as possible, to shield ourselves from it. I personally shield myself by trying to limit my interactions to those with my close friends, with whom my relationships are much less dysfunctional. I hope you all will relate in some form to my analysis, and I hope as a class we can carry this further. In pinpointing the aspects of liberal arts college life that lack the ethics that are desirable and necessary to build sustainable communities, I hope we will dare to envision in detail the situation that would make us feel fulfilled and at peace with ourselves and our environment.

Our Dysfunctional Haverworld 7.1 of 10 on the basis of 2791 Review.