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)?