Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ritual & Community: Does it really matter whether I stop and salute the flag?

Last Friday when I arrived on campus to start another day of work, I saw something a typical ritual on our campus play out and it left me with some questions.  Each morning at about 7:30 a.m. a group of 3 - 4 ROTC students raise a large American flag outside BYU's central administration building.  I would imagine that this happens on a number of other campuses each morning as well.  What might make BYU's flag-raising unique is that while the flag is raised the outdoor campus sound system (the same system that I'm assuming would be used to alert campus in the event of some wide-spread emergency) plays the U.S. national anthem.  At some point this evolved into a ritual of sorts in which anyone walking on campus at that time stops, pauses, and places their hand over their heart as the anthem is played.  On Friday morning I arrived at the same time this was all happening, so I stepped outside of my car and paused until the anthem had concluded.  

No one really wants to be on campus at 7:30 in the morning on a Friday in January, so there weren't more than a handful of others milling about on campus while this was happening.  Virtually everyone that I could see was doing the same thing I was doing (i.e. standing w/ hand over heart and watching the ritual play out).  However, I noticed that one student for one reason or another continued walking to whatever destination he had that morning.  It was interesting to watch how others reacted to this and, subsequently, how he responded to their glances and (in some cases) frowns.  This left me wondering whether or not it mattered that he didn't adhere to the social norm and participate in this simple ritual.  

Since coming to work in higher education I have come to appreciate the value that a strong community can add to a collection of learners.  So, my initial reaction is that participation in communal processes or events is important.  However, the question that I was left with was whether ritual really builds community and what impact participation in campus rituals has on learning.  As I thought about this concept over the weekend I had a memory of my high school experience and a particular campus ritual that as far as I can tell never positively impacted the sense of community at the school (and that may have even been detrimental to it).  

I attended one of Utah's athletic powerhouse high-schools where football was king.  Other than a stellar year at outside linebacker on my 3rd grade flag football team, I never played much football but I was never bothered by the focus that seemed to be placed on the success of Skyline High School's football program.   One thing that I did, however, find a little odd during my time there was how upset senior football players would become when another student (usually an unsuspecting sophomore) walked on "the seal."  The "seal" was our school seal and had been painted or laid in tile (I can't really remember which) on the floor of one of the hallways in the building that housed the main gym and auditorium.  At some point I would imagine that the seal may have represented a core set of values espoused by the high school and avoiding stepping on the seal was a physical act that communicated respect for those ideals.  But, by the time I entered Skyline any substantive meaning the seal held had been forgotten and the ritual had been reinterpreted to represent respect for football, problematic because the latter is not a value shared by the community at large (particularly given Skyline's poor track record on the football field in recent years).  

So, where does ritual fit in education?  For it to work it seems like a couple of key things need to happen:

1.  Members of the community need to have some understanding of what the ritual represents or what sorts of meaning are attached to it.

2.  The ideals embodied in the ritual should be held by the vast majority of community members.

3.  Campus leaders should make periodic references to the ritual and remind community members of its meaning.

4.  Efforts should be made to help new members of the community learn about the ritual, its meaning, and how to participate.

This is rough thinking on my part and I'm still not sure if I agree with the thoughts I've articulated here.  I'm interested in hearing about what others think.  What role does ritual play in education?  What does an effective ritual look like?  And, what does it mean when a member of the community chooses not to participate (like the student who didn't stop for the flag in my first story above)?


lionofzion said...

I like to say that since this is America, not stopping during the anthem is as much an act of patriotism as the act of stopping. It's a way of expressing thanks for the fact that in America we're free not to participate in these rituals, a freedom citizens of North Korea are denied.

gary said...

Great question. I think I would add one more component to your definition of an effective ritual: it has to contain multiple meanings. Space for multiple meaning differentiates ritual from ceremony. That is why a moment of silence is almost always more powerful than a speech, or taking the sacrament is more powerful than sacrament meeting. Or the makeshift memorials that spring up after a death are more powerful than the official headstone that eventually goes up. It is also what is wrong with BYU's national anthem ritual. (BTW, when I was a freshman at BYU, we had the same "don't step on the seal" ritual in the Wilkinson Center near where Jamba Juice is (was)? From time to time, though, it was reinforced by the university erecting a barrier around the seal so you could not walk over it.

Drake said...

I think you’ve hit on some really important ideas in your “key things” list. I particularly like the idea of reinforcement by community leaders. Without that, a ritual might seem more like a fad, especially for a new student who has no experience with the ritual.

As for those who don’t participate, I think lionofzion has a great point: it speaks to our country’s ideals that you can choose to participate or not. However, are there benefits, to you or to the community, that are foregone by not participating in the ritual?

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