There are increasing signs that we can return in person and in numbers with more regularity to that sacred ground we call school. Our students are leaving their “bunkers and bubbles.” It is not a new question, but one that receives more attention in these challenging times: what do our students need? If I may, I’d like to offer some thoughts to this critical conversation.
Sherry Turkle, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, has written persuasively about human relationships and particularly about the pseudo-relationship we have with the computer [e.g., Alone Together, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age]. She confirms through research what we know through our experience, that digital technology, for all that it does to bring people together, also has an insidious capacity to drive us apart.
The pandemic that drove us inside and to our screens didn’t create the dysfunctional relationship that humans have with their devices. After all, digital connections made possible the very connections we have needed and which have sustained our educational and human relationships. The point remains that post-pandemic life will have to address what was no less true before the pandemic: the power of screens to distract and divide our attention, and with it our rich human relationships.
At the heart of this richness is the warmth we convey in conversation, in eye contact, in touch. All three of these have been conveyed as best as a camera can, but the in–person conveyance has no equal, even for the digital native. With each day that we can be safely in the same space, perhaps we can re-focus our energies to enhance the direct—unmediated—experiences that stir our hearts and bring light to our eyes.
Conversation creates the bonds and the trust essential for relationships. The art of conversation has taken a hit and it is being felt in society, the family, the school. Many educators have observed that young people are struggling, even if they don’t know they are, with building friendships. They are struggling with boundaries between what is civil and what is not in speech and print. More and more people are trespassing, or perceived to be trespassing, on others’ sensitivities. Perhaps renewed energy can be given to helping our students grow in their conversational skills.
Tasha Dorsey, a therapist at Saint Luke Institute, suggests some skills to help our students “navigate differences with grace.” She includes learning how to be curious about the other person, using “I” statements and reflecting what you heard back to the speaker, and avoiding making assumptions about a person’s behavior or statements. What is common to each of these skills in listening and empathy, skill development that belongs in every course and every co-curricular.
Eye contact, along with civility in conversation, is a building block for empathy. As hard as we have tried to convey empathy by looking at that little light next to the camera, it is still a cool remove from the real. We don’t often think of this as a skill, yet we cannot take it for granted or dismiss it as one of those life skills better “caught than taught.” It is hard to overstate how important it is to be seen, to be noticed. The power in locking eyes to show compassion and tender regard is an understatement.
Touch is maybe the steepest incline for our climb out of the pandemic. One person told me she doesn’t think she will ever be shaking anyone’s hand again. I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that. We need to be vigilant and measured as we go forward, to be sure, and continue to look for the opportunity to be ever present to one another.
We often remark that the hallmark of Lasallian education is the centrality of relationships, beginning with our students’ needs at the heart of our ministry. These next months, as far as circumstances permit, we have the opportunity to rekindle the human warmth as a new expression of our saving ministry. Gregory Boyle, SJ, reminds us that “God protects us from nothing but sustains us in everything.” May our loving and wise God give us the strength we need in this ministry of touching hearts.
From the General Councilor’s Reflection Page
By Brother Timothy Coldwell, FSC
Top photo: Brother Matthew Kotek, FSC, back right, participates in a group discussion in Reem Bazzal’s English class at the Fratelli Project in Lebanon in December 2020. Courtesy Yara El Khoury/Fratelli