Broken or Blessed by Learning Communities?

I came across a stirring quote from Henri Nouwen that invited me to think about its implications for learning organizations, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” If you don’t know Nouwen, he was an accomplished academic and author of close to 40 books. Nouwen was a Catholic priest who spent two decades teaching first at Notre Dame, then Yale and Harvard divinity schools. His books tell a candid and authentic story of life, faith, struggle, compassion and living in service to others. In 1986 Nouwen moved from the lecture halls of the academy to a community called,L’Arche Daybreak, a living community where people with disabilities are welcome, loved, and nurtured. If you have seven minutes, the following video gives a glimpse into L’Arche from the perspective of a good friend of Nouwen, Jean Vanier. If you don’t have the time, I encourage you to at least watch the first minute or two.

Vanier describes his first experiences leading up to the formation of L’Arche, when he says, “…through his body, through his eyes, he was craving relationship. ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ ‘Will you come back?’ So, everything was around relationship, whereas, with my students in philosophy it was around ideas.” Vanier goes on to explain the experience of meeting people with disabilities who seemed feel as if they were living on this earth “with nobody wanting them.”

In the video, Vanier describes the meaning behind the name, L’Arche, or The Ark. In the story of Noah’s Ark, Noah welcomed the creations from around the world into his ark to save them from the flood. Vanier uses this story to explain that many people with disabilities are washed away in the flood of this world: not given places of freedom, killed before or after birth, placed into institutions. As such, the vision of L’Arche grew out of Vanier initially inviting two men with disabilities to live with him. In essence, L’Arche is a vision for warm, welcome, inviting, liberating community. As I’ve learned about L’Arche over the years, I’ve come to understand it as community that is rich with freedom and compassion, not a condescending hand out understanding of compassion, but one that truly loves and honors the people in this community.

For many young people, next to the home, school is the community in which they will spend the greatest amount of time in their young lives. The formative experiences of living in these communities have a significant and over an extended period, dramatic impact on the way young people view themselves, others, and the world. This is why I persistently argue for school options and choice, because every community teaches a worldview.

As I think about Nouwen’s quote and the community to which he devoted the last decade of his life, it prompts me to wonder about what one participant in my Adventures in Blended Learning MOOC referred to as humane education. I think of that as education that happens in a hospitable, safe community; one that is not only focused on outcomes, tests, and ideas; but that invests in relationships. I am not suggesting that schools take on the greatest social issues of society. That is a broader social and community responsibility. Yet, the nature of the communities in which we learn helps to shape the ways in which we learn to interact with others. This is why I often write with advocacy for self-directed learning and choice. What does it do to a person to spend over a decade in learning communities driven almost exclusively by authority, control, and the highly elevated value of compliance? What are the lessons learned (even if they are not explicitly taught) in such a community?

Democracy depends upon participation and hospitality, upon not simply protecting the “rights” of those who are least capable of defending themselves. I contend that it is also about creating spaces where people have freedom, where they are honored, and their contributions are valued. What happens when students spend years in a school culture dominated by tests and measures, outcomes without regard for community and process, and that celebrates those who meet or exceed established norms and standards while often remaining silent about those who do not fit the mold. Silence can scar as much as insults (as can be attested to by the child begging for a parent’s attention while the parent is zoned out on the laptop or cell phone).

If any of this resonates with you, then what are the implications for how we design learning communities? Is there room for the spirit of L’Arche in our school system? Schools are indeed about learning, but is there value for us to recognize that so much more is learned than what is tested? How can that be a greater part of our conversations about education reform?

This has implications for things like worforce development as well. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by how people bring their past experiences with community to new jobs and communities. I’ve seem people who struggle so much to find joy in the tasks of their work, to be independent in their decisions, to thrive in a context in which they are not told what, when, and/or how to do it. I’ve seen leaders who never or rarely experienced this either, so they think that direct orders, being firm and quick, or being assertive are somehow the critical traits of an effective leader. There is a time for these, but work also takes up large parts of our lives, and as much as making money is an important part of a business, it is possible to create great communities at work, places where people are valued, honored, given space for independence an choice, and invited to flourish. Why not cast a vision for such work places by being intentional about the way we shape our learning organizations, from preschool to high school, undergraduate to graduate studies?

Let’s return to the Nouwen quote, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” A professor of mine years ago exclaimed that, if you are in education, you are in the business of changing and influencing people. I don’t disagree. It is just a matter of how that change takes place. Medical schools certainly need to establish standards of performance for students. The well-being of future patients depends upon it. Yet, even in such a high stakes learning community, isn’t there room for spending as much thought and care in designing experiences where people care and have compassion, a space where people have freedom to change without it being thrust upon them. Again, this is not about letting medical students do whatever they want, but it is a suggestion that there is room for a little Patch Adams in all learning communities.  How much more is this true when we think about K-12 education, community college and technical training, and even professional development and learning in the workplace? As education becomes more focused on data and measures, how can we measure the extent to which our learning communities are hospitable, the extent to which participants are broken or blessed by them?