by Justin Miera
The word "community" is a standard component of our contemporary lexicon. It is crucial to political, religious and educational jargon. Almost every spokesperson from these various fields uses community as the source of either idyllic direction or repugnant spite. Community standards, community policing, community input, community gardens, community center, community values, community schools, community relations. No matter who is speaking, or what agenda they tout, community is an essential reference. However, it is rare to find the details that define a community such as its size, members or organization.
Whose community standards held as the norm? The Ku Klux Klan or the Black Panthers? Which communities are being policed? The suburbs or the inner city? Which communities' input is valued? The soccer moms' or the strip-malls'?
Still, this elusive paragon of ascription is cried for, particularly by the educational establishment, as a vital component to our world. Psychologists and sociologists refer to three primary socialization factors: parents, peers and community. One psychologist that sites parents as a primary socializer is Diana Baumrind. She is a developmentalist who describes the three styles of parenting as authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. She believes that a child's skills for relating with the world are developed from the mode of parenting used in raising the child (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, pp. 105-106). Some believe that parents have no influence on their children, that peers, or even genetics, play the prominent role in socialization. Judith Rich Harris believes that since children spend most of their time with other children, and get the most pleasure from peer social interactions, the feedback from peers is the most powerful motivator (Harris, 1998, pp. 285-288). Lev Vygotsky asserted that there is a "zone of proximal development" in which a child finds relevance, maturity and knowledge. Depending on who and what is around the child at the time of their budding will determine the richness of their adult fruition (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86). This is the key to defining a child's community. Who are the people that surround a child, and to what extent do they exert an influence?
To determine who surrounds the individual, we must first describe that person, that child. While no one child can be exactly the same as another, there are some generalizations that ring true for most. Most children are surrounded primarily by a family. Even when the family is temporary, or a foster family, there is an essential unit. In many cases today there is some form of a nuclear, or conjugal family. This small unit is usually one or two parents and one or more children. The nuclear family is actually a recent phenomena. There are some current examples of extended, or consanguine families living together. However, in the contemporary United States of America this extended family with blood ties is an exception. Currently, the extended family would included two or three other conjugal families that frequently interact (Bankston, 1999, p.289). This too is a rapidly extinguishing reality. These are, theoretically, the immediate people who surround a child's life. While it is convenient to use parents as one simple socializing factor, in reality, the term "parents" manifests as the combined efforts of the family, conjugal and consanguine.
It is those who reside outside of the family, and have the opportunity to consistently participate in the child's life that make up the community. In relation to a child there are two communal influences: peers and adults. For the purposes of this paper, the term community will refer to adult influences, and the term peers will be self defining. The power of peer influence deserves its own exploration, so this paper will only focus on the adult community.
There are two spheres of community: active and passive. Both have the opportunity to personally interact with a particular set of children on a consistent basis. To quantify a specific time and frequency for interaction would be quite difficult. A personal interaction once a year is obviously not frequent. Likewise, a passing two second glance through a car window is not a substantial interaction. It is precisely because of its nebulous nature that communities are difficult to define. Any attempt to set boundaries is ultimately arbitrary and subject to the perspectives of the definer (International encyclopedia, 1968, pp. 157-158). The definitions contained in this paper are focused on the lives of children.
Many people may have the opportunity to interact with children but choose not to. For this reason, community is divided into two categories: active and passive. Active communities are either invited into the lives of children, or take the initiative to be there. These may be people who work at schools, talk to their neighbors, or run the corner market. Conversely, there are people, who for what ever reasons, do not capitalize on their interactive opportunities. They are the passive community. These too could be people who work at schools, don't talk to their neighbors, or run the corner market. It might be that they feel threatened by those interactions, or maybe overly burdened to give up their time and effort. These people may not be able to physically interact with the community, or are shunned by the same.
Beyond the community is the local and national society. Local society is the people who live relatively near a child, but do not have the opportunity to spend significant time with her. These are the fellow citizens of a district, city, county or state; people who have impact on the life of a child by enacting laws or being the member of a professional sports franchise, but do not have frequent personal contact with that child. This is the distinction between society and community.
There are also members of a national society which may exert some collateral influence on the life of a child, but they do not materially or personally participate in that child's life. A large corporation may hire a father and increase the family's monetary stability, but at the same time decrease the time parent and child spend together. Congress may declare war and send a mother who is an army reservist into harm's way, possibly leaving the child an orphan. Still, the politicians and CEOs do not have consistent, intimate impacts on the lives of most children.
There is one other influential perspective: global. That of the Earth's entire population. The devastation of war and pollutants, of mass consumption and ethnic intolerance plague the lives of us all. The power of space travel, cultural communication, and shared inspirations lend positive aspects to everyone. Still, there is rare personal, consistent contact between people on opposite sides of the globe.
Within the active and passive communities there are several formal and informal organizations; organizations in the sense that they contain many people collaboratively planning and executing activities or events. The communities are pluralistic, diverse. They contain representatives from a myriad of perspectives, and therefore, they also tend to disagree. This diversification does offer positive contributions by combining such resources as "time, knowledge, money, official position, energy, popularity, social status (International encyclopedia, 1968, p. 160)." When the members of the community coordinate their resources and efforts they can reduce individual efforts and costs while expanding group benefits. Because so many different people must come to a consensus the process to initiate action can be slow. Once the community is organized then further activities become easier.
The community organization may strive to meet material or nonmaterial goals. Material goals could be a mural, a garden or a fund-raiser. Nonmaterial goals are less tangible, like improved childhood literacy, race relations or parent/teacher communication (International encyclopedia, 1968, p. 169). Successful community organizations contain five formal, or informal, components: a) the physical needs of the organization are in good condition (e.g. meeting place), b) the members are in good physical and mental health, c) there is a tolerable fit between the community's needs and the group to serve them, d) there is a consensus to norms and expectations, and e) the expectations are fulfilled (p. 163).
Some community organizations that interact with children are schools, businesses, spiritual communions, neighborhoods, sports teams and clubs. Each of these have varying degrees of formality depending on the community (Bankston, 1999, p.294). There are traditional schools and home-school collectives. There are office buildings and street vendors. There are synagogues and covens. There are city blocks and country farms. There are little league teams and pick-up ball games. There are NRA meetings and quilting bees. Each one of these may contain active child participants from birth to eighteen years old. The members of these organizations have varying degrees of contact from an hour once a month, to eight hours every day. To qualify the benefit, or detriment, of these interactions is purely subjective, yet, their impact is palpable.
In every case of community interaction, children learn how to participate in their world. Children learn not necessarily by the instructions given from the adults, but rather how adults interact with each other. Children learn cooperation, concession, camaraderie, humor, and all their opposites. The less children see adults in active participation with their community, the less children will be able to form and maintain communities of their own. It is this cycle which has driven the USA's society into a critical state of individuation. Individuals no longer have the abilities and skills to interact with others. With no interest or acknowledgement of others, our choices turn inward and become selfish. Likewise, our connections become thin, even within the family structure. This disconnection is the root of loneliness and loss of purpose. Without purpose there is despair and destruction. With purpose we overcome obstacles, synergize possibility and co-create the future. Just as the individual is affected by family, community, society and global forces, the individual has the ability to affect change in return.
Bankston III, C. L. (ed.) (1999). Encyclopedia of family life. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc.
Eggen, P. D. & Kauchak, D. (1992). Educational Psychology. New York: Macmillan Publishing.
Harris, Judith Rich (1998). The Nurture Assumption. New York: The Free Press.
International encyclopedia of the social sciences (1968). USA: Crowell Collier and Macmillan, Inc.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
A philosophical study in partial fulfillment of the course Community Roles in Education, MLS 654 J, Course Consultant is Patt Linden, Ph.D., REGIS UNIVERSITY, February 8, 2000
Justin's Regis Papers Page