Thursday, March 15, 2012

Campuses and congregations; friendship and learning

Given the implications of his findings, you might think that the student engagement world would have given Robert Putnam's recent work on friendship and religious congregations some attention.   In it, Putman and his co-author Chaeyoon Lim find that the more friends an active member of a religious congregation has in the congregation, the happier that person is.  Neither the number of non-church friends a religious person has, nor that person's religiosity have the same effect on the person's sense of well-being.  For this reason Putnam's advice to religious leaders is to pay more attention to church suppers than to the sermons offered before those suppers.

Putnam and Lim do not offer a hypothesis for why church friendships are "super-charged friendships" for actively religious people.  But it would be simple to theorize two explanations: friendships cement one's feeling that one's chosen religious setting is the right one' and friendship reinforces the teaching in all major religions that  loving relationships between humans exemplify the loving relationship between humans and their gods.  These theories also explain why friendships and religious practice have much less influence on well-being for people who are only moderately religious.

I read about Putnam's study the same day I got a series of texts from one of my daughters saying how lonely she is at college.  For her, the absence of meaningful friendships exacerbates the uncertainty she feels about her majors, the goals of her education, or the course of her future life.  When you are uncertain about the path ahead and feel like you have few friends, loneliness is an impediment to learning.

Colleges and universities talk frequently about the interaction between people in different roles, but we pay almost no attention to the connections between friendship and learning.  We tout, for example, small class sizes, the student/faculty ratio, research assistantships, group work, learning communities, as if interaction leads to learning and well-being.  But interaction and friendship are not the same thing.  Interactions are exchanges in one form or another--faculty member X shares information with student Y, who uses it in her research.  But friendships are characterized not by interactions but by a certain sort of emotional connection--common interests, empathy, patience, humility, unguardedness, forgiveness.

We know relatively little about how those emotional connections relate to learning and well-being.  But Putnam's study suggests that we ought to care.  For there are meaningful relationships between being in the "right" place, friendship, and well-being.  For educators who are concerned about retention, student engagement, learning, the discovery of vocation, and the creation of meaning in the lives of students, the question of how to identify, foster, and prolong friendships ought to be an important question indeed.

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