COMMUNITY LEARNING:

 WHAT THE 60S HAVE TO SAY TO THE 90S

 

Arthur Warmoth

Sonoma State University

© 1994

        

         Since this award honors a department that opened its doors in 1961, it is appropriate to reflect on the sixties and to ask what some of the enduring contributions of that decade have been.  However, following the dormant decade of the eighties, it is also worth asking how these enduring contributions need to be reworked for the nineties, by our department, by humanistic psychology, and by society at large.  Perhaps I should have subtitled my talk "What the 60s have to say to the 90s, and how the 90s need to respond."

         The sixties were, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for the turn of the 21st century.  That decade was characterized by a massive critique of late industrial society.  This critique anticipated replacing that society with something radically different, and hopefully better.  There were two dominant themes to this critique.  On the one hand, there was humanistic psychology and the human potential movement, which promised the transformation and reconstruction of the individual self.  On the other hand, there was radical political activism, which promised the transformation and reconstruction of the institutions of politics and production.  The sixties also saw the birth of environmentalism, which is sometimes dated as the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962.  The ecological view of systems may eventually contribute to integrating the other two themes.  But in the sixties, the two movements generally existed in isolation from one another.

         The human potential movement offered a radical reinterpretation of what it means to be a human being.  Abe Maslow's motivational theory and Rollo May's existential explorations emphasized the higher, as well as the lower, needs and potentialities.  Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and Fritz Perls were simply the best known of an army of practitioners who invented the growth center and reinvented psychotherapy.   In the process, these humanistic psychologists transformed our ideas about what it means to be fully human, at least for the liberal judeo-protestant upper middle class.  This movement was based on a set of values which deserve to continue to inform our strategies for cultural evolution as we move into the new century.  The core values included:

1.    The centrality for psychology and human affairs of human experience, of the 'subject,'

2.    The centrality of the human experiences of choice, will, responsibility, and emotional and spiritual depth.

3.    The importance of the satisfaction of the full range of human needs:  physiological needs, security, relationships, achievement & recognition, and psychospiritual self realization,

4.    The importance of spiritual consciousness and spiritual development,

5.    The importance of higher values such as compassion, responsibility, commitment, truth, beauty, and justice.

         Political radicalism criticized the shallowness and unfairness of modern industrial society.  It suggested that the problems reside in the deep structure of our social systems.  Unfortunately, the critics of the 60s were taking on modern industrial society at the point of its fullest flowering, as measured by the growth of industrial output, the spread and inventiveness of technology, and the general spread of affluence among the industrialized nations.  (Since it was also the "baby boom" generation, it seems likely that the freedom to engage in radical critique was often subsidized by the voluntary redistribution of wealth from the older to the younger generation, both directly and through the massive investments that were being made at the time in education.)

         I believe that it was probably that affluence which kept the two critical movements from having to deal with each other.  The participants in the human potential movement could pursue their inner explorations without fear of major shocks from the political and economic institutions that maintained their lifestyle.  The idealogues of the radical left could conduct their agitation in the streets and in the universities without having to face the distortions that came from unresolved parental relationships or from the inability to connect empathically and productively with the experiential world of the ordinary citizen.

         Today, however, it is hard to ignore the fact that modern industrial society has run its course.  It is not clear what we should call what comes next.  The terms "postindustrial" and "postmodern" have both been widely used, and neither seems entirely accurate in its connotations.  But it is quite clear that the new communications and information processing technologies combine with our increasing awareness of the ecological and social toxicity of the old technologies to project us headlong into a foreign and sometimes terrifying new world.  Whatever we call it, the challenge of the new era is to realize that the pursuit of personal meaning and fulfillment absolutely requires participation in the task of reconstructing society and renegotiating the social contract.  After all, self-actualization cannot be achieved without involvement in the context of ordinary reality.  When reality is chaotic, the chaos must be engaged.

         As we look to reconstructing our political and economic institutions, much of the leftist and centrist critical analysis of these institutions that we inherit from the 60s remains relevant.  (It is worth noting that, although industrial socialism fell first, I believe that industrial-model capitalism will not be far behind.  Both were based on the dynamics of an energy intensive, heavily polluting model of industry.  That model that is now obsolete.)  We urgently need a higher level of public literacy concerning the system properties and dynamics of our political and economic institutions if we are to redesign them in ways that are both effective and democratic.  However, there was a key point that was missed by the criticism of society that dominated the 60s.  That is the fact that--in addition to more effective and widely understood theories of society--we need more effective theories of community.  For it is only through participation in healthy community that the person can be fully involved in the reconstruction of society.  Therefore, in the reaminder of this talk, I would like to offer the broad outlines of such a theory.

         First, I would like to propose a working definition of community:   A community is any social system (group, organization, etc.) on a scale (size) between small groups and the limit defined by the possibility of whole person, interactive communication among all group members.   In other words, it is the scale within which it is possible for group members to know one another as distinct, individual personalities.  (A more precise technical term might be "communal systems" or "community systems.")  As we know in humanistic psychology, whole person communication has nonverbal as well as verbal dimensions.  And this in turn requires whole person interaction, both to incorporate the subtleties of gesture and tone of voice, and to explore the emerging meanings of images and symbols.  And it seems clear that there is a certain scale beyond which a group cannot be organized in terms of this type of interactive communication.  We may imagine that we know the president or the governor or our favorite movie star as a human being.  Mass politics and entertainment are largely dependent on the illusion that this is so.  But you need to be the heroine of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo to believe that the relationship is mutual.  There is much of human life that is best suited to be carried out in the context of community, as defined by this criterion.

         This definition is reminiscent of Ferdinand Tönnies classic distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, which are usually translated as "community" and "society."  However, rather than seeing these as stages of social evolution, as Tönnies did, I am proposing that they represent two levels of social scale that have some critically different system properties.  They are both important and useful types of systems, but they each have very different advantages.  The core of wisdom in managing social evolution in the postmodern era may be to learn how to use each type of system for the things it can do best, and to avoid burdening either type of system with responsibilities for which it is unsuited.

         It will be useful to briefly consider some of the characteristics of large scale systems, in order to place the discussion of community systems in context.  There are two types of large scale social systems:  civilizations and societies.  Civilizations are large scale cultures.  They are the older of the two forms, and they have historically organized themselves around a dominant religious ideology.  Modern societies are composed of intentionally designed systems which might be conveniently included under the rubric of corporate systems or corporations--”corporation” is another translation of gesellschaft.  I am using the term "corporation" in a very broad sense, for creatures such as governments and academic disciplines fall under this definition.  Corporate systems are intentionally created by design, in order to serve specified human purposes.  The tools of their creation include law, policy, bookkeeping, and information processing bureaucracy. 

         I will save my thoughts on the evolution of large scale systems for another occasion.  But there is something that needs to be said about their current status.  First, civilizations are obsolete; and second, the corporate systems of modern society need to be tamed.

         With regard to the obsolescence of civilizations, I must emphasize that I do not think that cultural history is obsolete.  The deep cultural and spiritual understanding of the human condition, as interpreted by symbols emerging from the deep levels of the unconscious, will always be with us.  And all of our lives and communities have historical roots in shared symbols derived from one or another of the world's great religious ideologies.  However, I am skeptical that we will ever again see the day when a dominant metaphor will be the primary unifying principle of any real large scale social organization.  I am even more certain that no individual or group--no priesthood--will be given authority to impose its own interpretation of the meanings of our shared metaphors.  Spiritual development is important, but it is better left to the interactive play of ethical dialogue and creative storytelling within communities.  Social policy and constitutional law in the area of freedom of religion have barely begun to scratch the surface of the issues raised by this insight.

         On the other hand, corporations, or societal systems, need to be tamed by recognizing what they can and cannot do well.  Societies, in the form of governments, are very good at waging war, but very poor at managing the peace.  Only healthy communities can do that.  Societies, in the form of academic disciplines, are very good at creating bodies of scientific knowledge, but very poor at applying that knowledge to the solution of social problems.  Only knowledgeable communities can do that.  Only planetary agreements can control global warming, or save the rain forests and the oceans.  But only local communities can save the local trout stream, or the local topsoil, or deal with local homelessness.  The commercial corporate form is useful for raising massive sums of capital and undertaking large scale projects, and it is very good at satisfying those human needs that can be satisfied by manufactured goods.  But most human problems do not require large scale projects for their solution.  And most human needs can be best satisfied by natural resources or by other people, and not by manufactured goods.  Obvious examples of the former include food and living space.  Examples of the latter include health maintenance, education, public safety, good government, and entertainment.  All of the latter are more likely to be provided by healthy and well informed communities than they are by national policy.

         Healthy and well-informed communities, on the other hand, if they are given the support of broad social policy, are well suited for managing resources and nourishing their members.  They are also good for learning.  We can see this in the model of the classical academy, the medieval university, and the modern liberal arts college.  If our futurologists are correct in asserting that the work of the future is learning, and learning how to learn, perhaps it would be wise for much more of society to take on the characteristics of the liberal arts college campus.  Undertaking the project of learning as a community offers greater resources than are available to the isolated individual for mastering the complexities of today’s information overload.  At the same time, learning on the community scale provides opportunities for dialogue and discussion that can maintain the vitality, creativity, and ethical focus of the learning process.

         Effective communities will need to learn how to learn.  This will mean learning how to use all of the available learning tools and modalities.  We will need to learn how to use the information superhighway for the access it gives us to the cumulative and relatively timeless knowledge of the scienfitic disciplines.  We must also learn how to use it to access the real time information it can give us about the current status of continuously evolving chaotic social and natural systems.  But we must also learn how to use the wisdom of the heart and the soul, which is available through the creation of and reflection upon living metaphors, images, and stories.  Humanistic psychology has a great deal to say about all of these learning tools.  I hope that we will continue to work to say it clearly and effectively, and in ways that can cross the boundaries of class, ethnicity, and ontological biases.

         If we are thinking about assigning such awesome responsibilities to communities, it might be useful to have some criteria for determining what a healthy community is.  I suggest that there are useful criteria that can be grouped into three categories:  1)  Healthy communities embody humanistic values,  2)  They embody democratic values, and 3)  They have a healthy interface with larger social and ecological systems.  

      

       Humanistic values includes the following:

·      Acceptance of members as whole persons, “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers),

·      Support for the full range (or hierarchy) of members' needs (A. H. Maslow),

·      Attention to and respect for the Daimonic (Rollo May).

        

       Democratic values would include:

·      Open, interactive communication,

·      Participatory decision making (Consensus, or other processes that respect needs of all members),

·      Roles based on knowledge and skills, rather than on status.

      

       Healthy interfaces with larger systems would be defined as interfaces that permit the community a large measure of self-determination.  These interfaces would include:

·      An economic interface that includes control over adequate resources and responsibility for production and stewardship;

·      A political interface based on effective participation in relevant areas of public policy;

·      A cultural interface, with a clearly articulated historical narrative that relates to the historical and ethnic narratives of the larger society.

 

         If we accept the idea that communities represent effective learning systems, the questions remains:  What do healthy communities need to learn?  Rich communities need to learn how to give up non-renewable hydrocarbons, while poor communities need to learn how to give up unrestrained procreation.  Everyone needs to learn empathic communication and compassionate understanding.  Or, in the simpler words of Rodney King,  we need to learn how to "get along."   We need to learn how to create public corporations that can be a countervailing force to private corporations.  We need to learn how to combine distributive justice with efficient production.  Jesus was probably right when he said that "ye have the poor always with you"  (Matthew 26:11).   After all, conspicuous consumption is widely admired and it is not universally attainable.  For that reason, relative poverty is inevitable.  But Jesus did not say that relative poverty must always be an affliction.  There are still many so-called underdeveloped cultures--cultures that are one of our priceless vanishing resources--that demonstrate this to be true.

         The message of the 21st century is that the values of humanistic psychology will be translated into action and effective social change by communities, which include groups, organizations, and networks, as well as the geographically based cultural and political communities that we often have in mind when we lament "the loss of community."  They will not be realized by the "Lone Rangers" of the sixties.  There will continue to be a role for creative and entrepreneurial individuals.  But that role will be one of self-reflective mutual empowerment, not one of charismatic leadership.  The need for continuous scanning of a constantly changing environment will necessitate the development of organizations, as well as of individuals, who are capable of learning.  It will generate the need for reflective, ongoing conversation and dialogue, in order to support the effectiveness of environmental scanning.  But even more importantly, the ongoing dialogue and conversation that are possible in community are urgently needed in order to maintain the ethical bearings of the social enterprise.


An invited address presented to Division 32, Humanistic Psychology, of the American Psychological Association at the 102nd Annual Convention, Los Angeles, CA, August 14, 1994.

 

The occasion was the presentation to the Psychology Department of Sonoma State University and the author of the Charlotte and Karl Bühler Award for pioneering work in graduate education in humanistic psychology.  I would like to acknowledge the faculty of the department, past and present, each of whom has made unique and distinctive contributions, not the least of which has been to create an organizational culture in which the whole has been greater than the sum of the parts.  The founders of the department, George McCabe, Hobart (Red) Thomas, and Gordon Tappan, are particularly deserving of recognition for establishing it upon a humanistic vision.