Why do humans seek community? How do we build and sustain communities that foster personal fulfillment, interdependence, and structures that support the common good?
These questions formed the basis for “Social Animals: The Rise and Fall of Community in the 21st Century,” an elective offered last fall at Darrow School (NY) taught by history teacher Catherine Stines. The course takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how social structures in the United States have functioned in the past, how they’ve changed in the 21st century, and the challenges facing communities as civic engagement has eroded since the middle of the 20th century.
The course draws on the writings of Robert Putnam, Peter Block, and John Medina. Block’s and Putnam’s works paint a picture of the community as a fragmented and disintegrating, yet culturally critical, element of modern society. Both authors allow students to explore the mechanisms by which civic engagement and community can be revitalized in the modern era and empower students to take an active role as engaged citizens. Medina’s popular book, Brain Rules, gives students a working knowledge of how the human brain responds to social interaction and why community is important to the growth of its individual members.
In keeping with Darrow School’s commitment to active learning, course assessments ranged from an analysis of the structural elements of the Darrow community (using the school as a laboratory for practical inquiry) and personal reflections on each student’s own role in the community.
“My overall goal was for the students to feel more empowered to change the world around them,” Stines says. “Their primary takeaway was that accountability and vulnerability are the cornerstones of increasing communication and developing community.”
At the conclusion of the class, students made presentations to the school community based on their projects. Project topics included gentrification and the Harlem community, empathy vs. sympathy after trauma, and male emotion and friendship.