Last week, the Student Government Association sponsored an “Open Conversation with the President” in the Van Dyk Lounge. I always look forward to these times. There were a range of questions, including some fun ones about my favorite music, my views on the Beatles and my opinion about certain aspects of Star Wars. There were also serious ones about tenure, budgeting, and the overall environment of higher education. But the most interesting question related to Houghton’s approach to “Community.”
One of the students asked if we are prepared to “warn” prospective students about the notion of “community” at Houghton. I did not understand the question. At first, I took it as a critical question about Houghton. It was exactly the opposite. It turns out that the students treasure the fact that, at Houghton, students cannot disappear into the woodwork. According to them, being here requires a willingness to deal with each other as real people and not just through texts and Twitter. They also said that this call to actual in-person community can be truly threatening for their generation.
The Cost of Community in a Digital Culture
What I heard that evening is their confession that Houghton calls them in a good and empowering way beyond the self-centeredness and narcissism that is the default culture in which they are being formed. They wanted me to be aware of the high threshold that we are asking prospective students to cross as we invite them to consider Houghton. They wanted me to know that we need to proactively help prospective students have courage to be at Houghton.
I was deeply affected by this conversation. First, it spoke of our students’ deep love and gratitude for what Houghton has invited them into—and their desire that future students be able to experience what they have found at Houghton. Second, it spoke of their capacity to be thoughtful and reflective about the impact of technology on their generation’s capacity for true engagement with each other as human beings. Third, it spoke of their courage in facing the challenge and cost of true community.
The cost of true community is not simply an issue for the younger generation. At least in the West, we all find ourselves in the midst of a world where, for the first time in the history of the human experience, we can hide behind the ubiquitous screens of technology to create communities that have the illusion of connection without the risk of the messiness that so often comes with face-to-face community.
Our Call This Thanksgiving
All of this hits home as we come into this week of Thanksgiving. Many of us face the prospect of dinners at real tables with real people we care about deeply—but where, in this polarized season of our church and culture, sensitive topics can emerge at the proverbial “drop of a hat,” turning a pleasant meal into a war zone. When we dare to get out from behind the screens, we also see the pain that is part of every real family and community—and we have to choose whether we have the courage to bear the risk of real community even with those we love most.
I want to believe that Houghton prepares graduates not only for the challenges of change in their professional lives, but also for challenges in the changing context of their personal journeys. In particular, during this season of Thanksgiving and approaching Advent, it is my prayer that each of you will have the courage—like our students at last week’s conversation—to choose to pay the cost of being in true community. It is only then that we will discover the full joy and rich gifts of life together.
Wishing you a heart of openness to the opportunities of this season of Thanksgiving and Advent.
Shirley Mullen, Class of 1976