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Washington’s farewell address

On the occasion of George Washington’s birthday, Gillian Brockell published in the Washington Post and on social media a useful and timely commentary regarding the importance of our first president’s farewell address.

“The nation’s first president was the only one not to have declared himself part of a political party, but by the end of his presidency only Federalists remained in his Cabinet. Factional (partisan) bickering between Federalists and Democratic Republicans made his second term miserable. So much so, there were already fears that the young nation might soon break apart, particularly without the sturdy oak that was Washington to lead it.” Washington rejected becoming such a leader.

So in his September 1796 farewell address to the public, in which he announced he would not seek a third term, Washington spent the bulk of the 7,631-word treatise warning the nation against political parties, regional divides and foreign interference.

We are all painfully aware of the modern-day version of Washington’s prophetic statements of his era, regarding political parties and their relationships to regional divides and foreign interference. Add the argumentation, ignorance, rigidity, lack of logic and stalemate that is witnessed on a daily basis. It does not need elaboration here, but consideration of what might be done to alleviate this mess would be productive.

By way of background, proposed legislation in our government is fashioned in committees, each with a chair appointed by the party in power and a vice chair appointed by the losing party. The controlling party has the power to shape any legislation to suit the membership’s preconceived mindset that reflects the party’s group thinking. Individual differences are suppressed “for the good of the party.” These differences are often aired today through social media, thus contributing little to altering the continuation of the current legislative process.

This process violates what is known and can be validated about small group processes and group development. I experienced what is often faced by an appointed leader of a group who, for a variety of reasons, is viewed as representing an inferior or a superior group, similar to government groups.

I was appointed to teach a group of freshman college students Psychology 101. They represented every department of the college, including the education department.

On the first day of class, I observed the majority of group members sitting in a defiant position, arms folded, starring straight ahead with the message, “I dare you to teach us anything, especially since you represent those fuzzy-minded educators who speak in platitudes about nothing.” I thought: “What am I going to do with this group and yet maintain my sanity?”

I remembered an experience with seventh- and eighth-grade students. Together we reconstructed the early history and geography of St. Lawrence County using the methods and materials of history and geography. The data used to construct this image were authenticated records of the past. I thought, “What data would be most relevant for these students, needed to reconstruct their life’s image as a prerequisite to understanding the content of Psycology 101?”

I concluded it would be drawn from an analysis of each student’s past.

I got them to agree to an exercise that I tentatively assured them would pay dividends.

I stated my reasoning by quoting from a book I was reading by psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie, MD, that set the course for the semester.

“… education without self-knowledge can never mean wisdom or maturity; … self-knowledge in depth is a process which like education itself is never complete. It is a point on a continuous and never-ending journey. Without self-knowledge we can have no adults, but only aging children who are armed with words, and paint and clay and atomic weapons, none of which they [fully] understand.

“Self-knowledge is not all there is to wisdom and maturity; but it is an essential ingredient which makes maturity at least possible. Yet it is the one ingredient which is almost totally neglected. This lack is both an index and a cause of the immaturity of our culture.”

Surprised by the personal relevancy of my rationale, they agreed to participate.

The first step was designed to collect data about the past. I asked each student over the course of the next several days to write down honest and confidential information about the events of their past they felt contributed significantly to who they had become.

Many lists were lengthy, so the next step was to examine the items to reduce them to perhaps a dozen or fewer categories. For instance, every thing that related to education had its own category, likewise religion, family, etc.

The next step was to create a visual representation of the relationships between these categories that would be used to present to the group their findings without revealing confidential information unless they chose to do so.

On the days of the presentations, I saw a dramatic change emerge in attitudes I had never seen before in a group. They began to listen attentively and appreciate the differences and similarities voiced by their classmates.

A most important agreement had been struck that the objective was to seek clarity rather than emphasize the differences that might lead to conflicts needing to be later addressed in the group’s deliberations to achieve group maturity.

I have provided this example to illustrate what doesn’t happen with legislating committees operating under the rules of political parties. What I learned about groups with these freshmen motivated me to research the literature to find an explanation, and I did.

What happened in my group is summed up in the theory of group development that states there are three phases in the development of small group maturity: dependency, independence and interdependence.

Committees in government remain at the dependency stage, accepting party dictates, almost never seriously considering individual differences or relevant contrary facts, the substance of the independent stage.

My group emerged through all three stages, developing a belief in and application of the essentials of conflict resolution and peace of mind, exchanged within communications reflecting consensual validation. They discovered and exchanged much about themselves and the content of psychology. Never again could they easily ignore the impact of this transformation.

Wouldn’t that be important for legislative committees to become fully functioning groups in the spirit of George Washington’s farewell address, having left their party affiliations at the door? Like my group, maybe this experience would carry over into the conduct of the broader government functions and life’s intelligent decision making. What do you think?

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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