Dr. Walter E. Massey
President’s, Morehouse College
September 19, 2002
Almost exactly one year ago, during my Opening Convocation address for the 2001-2002 academic year, I mentioned, in passing, a concept I want to spend some time talking about today. That concept is community.
Last year, I referenced community in the context of the September 11 tragedy that had occurred just nine days earlier. I said that even in the midst of this national crisis, which was characterized by grief, shock and fear, I was struck by the “new level of caring and civility…new depth of courage and commitment… and new sense of camaraderie and community” that was evident throughout the Morehouse campus.
This year, I will talk about community in the context of our ongoing institutional identity – who we are and what we want to be at Morehouse. I will make the case that in order to sustain a healthy community – in particular, a healthy learning community – it is vital that we adopt practical, visible and easily understood ways of nurturing and supporting a true spirit of community at Morehouse.
First, what is community?
It is an often-used word – sometimes overused. At Morehouse, we use it to describe our racial and ethnic ties, as in the African American community. We use it to describe our geographic location, as in the Atlanta community. We use it to describe the neighborhood of which our campus is a part, as in the West End community, and to describe our association with nearby educational institutions, as in the Atlanta University Center community. We speak also of the Morehouse community. But, interestingly, we more often refer to ourselves as the Morehouse family or the Morehouse brotherhood, depending on the context – somehow implying that the Morehouse notion of community is more intimate, stronger and personal than other communities with which we associate ourselves.
Like all such terms, community has ancient roots and various meanings. It derives from the Latin, communus – com, which means shared, and munus, which means gift or service. Modern definitions of community range from specific political entities, such as a state or commonwealth, to any unified body of individuals who may be linked by a common location, shared interests, or a similar history or set of values and beliefs.
Morehouse alumnus Howard Washington Thurman, a philosopher and religious leader, wrote quite often on the subject of community. In the book, “A Strange Freedom,” a collection of Thurman’s writings edited by Morehouse Professor Walter Earl Fluker, we see that the notion of community was of extreme importance to Thurman in developing his worldview – his concept of the way individuals should relate to each other and to God.
Thurman defined the experience of community as “realized potential” and our tendency to form community as “an intuitive human urge.” Indeed, Thurman believed that the development of community is almost inevitable in any human society because it is the way in which individual human potential is realized to its fullest affect. How? First, by providing people with a basis for identity with a call and purpose more significant than their individual survival and, second, by providing people with a feeling of membership with others of common values with whom they can experience direct and intense communication.
Despite these benefits of community, Thurman cautioned against what he called a “limited sense of community, whose boundaries are self-imposed.” In its extreme form, a limited sense of community can lead to the development of groups that see themselves as “special” or “different” and, in many cases, superior to others. Narrow-minded and bigoted organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazi Party, and the like are a few examples that come to mind. In its mildest form, a limited sense of community can lead to the formation of cliques or socially discriminating fraternities or clubs. The danger of any limited or closed community is that people can begin to feel confined by a particular group. And, to the extent they, do there are few avenues open for them to develop a sense of their membership in society as a whole.
As we consider our notion of community at Morehouse, we must take care not to fall into this trap. Yes, we think of ourselves and speak of ourselves as special. Yes, we say to you when you arrive on this campus that you are different, that you were selected to come to Morehouse because of particular characteristics that distinguish you from others. These things are true. But, as Thurman noted, these are the minimal characteristics of a community. For a community to develop its maximum characteristics – for it to survive and be healthy – it must be an open community, not a closed one.
In his essay titled “The Search in Identity,” Thurman explained it this way: “[C]ommunity cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them – unknown and undiscovered brothers.”
In speaking of the Morehouse community, I have often talked about Morehouse as a “World House.” This notion, popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a mentee of Howard Thurman, is perhaps the quintessential expression of an open community – a place where we accept and respect all others and where, despite our differences, we learn to live together in mutual cooperation and peace. In that regard, I believe that one of our most important functions at Morehouse is to prepare our students to be world leaders – to have an impact beyond any limited sense of community.
Just as a healthy, vibrant community must be open to new people, it also must be open to new ideas. While creating a sense of togetherness and belonging, a community must, at the same time, allow for the growth and expression of the individuals who comprise that community.
This tension – or perceived tension – between the health and survival of the community and the growth and development of the individual is discussed in detail in two books by Morehouse Professor Barry Hallen, chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religion: “A Short History of African Philosophy” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Discourse About Values in Yoruba Culture.” In these texts, Dr. Hallen examines the notion of community in African society – how it has formed over the centuries, and how it has been perceived in Western society. Regarding the controversial role of community in the development of African morality, Professor Hallen observes:
“It is virtually commonplace that texts on African moral systems place primary emphasis on the role of the community in creating, defining, and sustaining a culture’s moral values. The contributions made…by the individual consciousness, by a sense of a truly personal obligation and responsibility, is therefore said to be less significant than in some other cultures.”
Hallen goes on to present a detailed and impressive argument against this one-sided view of African life and philosophy. I do not have time in this brief talk to develop his points and I risk, even now, oversimplifying them. But, he subscribes to the notion, to paraphrase one African philosopher, that the individual in traditional African society is not crushed by the “almighty” presence of the community and “that there need not be any tension between individuality and community.”
I made a similar point in my address during the Spelman-Morehouse Freshman Convocation a few weeks ago. I talked about the importance of tradition, which is a community value. I said that while we must embrace and treasure our traditions, we must also examine and, on occasion, challenge them. We must appreciate tradition without becoming traditionalists – that is, we must support our community without allowing our individual ideas and identities to become subsumed by it.
At Morehouse, we strive to develop, maintain and nurture an open, welcoming community that evolves, grows and learns by absorbing the best of other communities, by admitting new people and new ideas, and by allowing challenges – from inside and outside – to existing ideas and traditions. In fact, this kind of openness is the very essence of a learning community, which is precisely what a liberal arts college ought to be, and precisely what we say we are.
Our vision for Morehouse is that it will be one of the very best undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the nation – period. Which means we want to be one of the very best learning communities in the nation – period. Our goals, then, must include specific strategies and practical processes to ensure that Morehouse becomes just that. Today, I will mention briefly two such initiatives that will be our focus for the 2002-2003 academic year.
The first has to do with the role of the core curriculum in fostering a healthy learning community. As I hope you know, at Morehouse, our curriculum can be roughly divided in three components: the major, the free electives, and what we call the core curriculum. The core, which comprises almost 50 percent of your educational experience, is the set of courses that all students are required to take. These include languages, philosophy and religion, science, mathematics, history and sociology – those courses that traditionally have been the heart of a liberal arts education.
This year, under the leadership of Dr. Willis B. Sheftall, senior vice president for academic affairs, we will be undertaking a thorough examination of the content, context, and role of the core curriculum. A special task force, which includes three student representatives, will address the question of what should be the common body of knowledge and the common set of skills that distinguish a Morehouse education. As the work of the task force progresses, there will be opportunities for students and others to participate in a series of town hall meetings and share their views about this most critical aspect of our community.
The second key initiative for this academic year is a continuation of one we began last year: the Institutional Values Project. You will recall that we termed the first year of the Project the “Year of Dialogue.” A number of you participated in project teams with other students, faculty and staff members and engaged in broad-based discussions about the shared personal and institutional values we believe are necessary for us to achieve our shared vision for Morehouse.
One of the outcomes of the work of those teams is a list of nine values that we feel should define our interactions as a community. These values are accountability, civility, community, compassion, honesty, integrity, respect, spirituality and trust. You may have noticed when you entered the Chapel today that these values have been depicted on a series of posters, which will be displayed around the campus. If you did not see them when you came in, I hope you will take a few minutes to view the posters as you leave today.
And, as you view them, I hope you will keep in mind that as attractive as they are, these posters are not just for show. They are meant to provoke further dialogue and personal reflection about how these values can be actualized in the context of the Morehouse community. Toward that end, this year’s theme for the Institutional Values Project is the “Year of Reflection.” I challenge all of us to ask ourselves – and each other – what we are doing, what we can and should be doing, to make our dream for Morehouse come true.
I will close by saying how pleased I am that building community is also this year’s focus for the Morehouse Student Government Association. President Randall Woodfin has pledged that the SGA will work to promote a true sense of community at Morehouse that is inclusive of all students, staff and faculty. “Our mission,” says Randall, “is to have a community where everyone is heard and [where] unity is felt and seen by all.”
I look forward to working with Randall and his team and with all of you who will join us in this quest. Thank you and best wishes for a successful academic year.