Lessons from a Strenuous Social Psychology Experiment, a.k.a. a 50th High School Reunion
Early in April, my luck took an upward surge, and I was permitted to serve as a human subject in a strenuous social psychology experiment.
Or, to put this another way, I went to my 50th anniversary high school reunion.
For the young and/or the reclusive, I will outline the steps and stages of this recent experiment.
- Recruit some participants who once spent days, weeks, months, and years in each other’s company but who, with rare exceptions, have not seen each other in half a century;
- Include people of every possible ethnicity, social class, religious identity, and political affiliation: African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, and whites of various lines of descent; working class, middle class, and professional elite; Catholics, Mormons, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, agnostics, and atheists; and citizens who voted for Hillary Clinton, citizens who voted for Donald Trump, and citizens who took the position sometimes uncharitably summarized as “a pox on both their houses.”
- Assemble this crowd, with a diversity extending light-years beyond the technical definition of “a motley crew,” in Banning, Calif., a small town located in the San Gorgonio Pass between Riverside and Palm Springs.
- Recognize that the mixing of national polarization with remembered injuries and affronts could provoke collisions galore, but provide nothing in the way of professional facilitation or conflict resolution.
- And then brace yourself for the outcome: the exhilaration of watching Americans in 2018 conduct themselves with grace, tolerance, congeniality, affection, resilience, and merriment.
Here’s my not entirely convincing hypothesis: throughout our rattled nation, the 68-year-old members of the Class of 1968 (this is almost a numerical pun!) are coming together and transcending their differences with good will.
But now for the historian’s critique of that hypothesis: the Banning High Class of 1968 had some distinctive advantages in its original context.
For reasons that involved more in the way of small-town fiscal constraints than principle, we escaped segregation. From fourth grade on, we were enrolled in the same elementary, junior high, and high school. With 150 in our graduating class, we were all acquainted with each other, and we are joint owners of an abundance of memories. Moreover, with the tumult of the 1960s playing out around us, nearly all of us had undergone a rigorous training program — in devising ways to live in each other’s company even when we disagreed — before we turned 18.
And now the roughest part: over one-third of our classmates have died. At the reunion, we watched a display of photographs of our departed friends, and any temptation to excavate and rehash old injuries and grievances faded away. Aware of our elemental good fortune in still being alive, any inclination to dehumanize or demonize each other as political antagonists would have edged up on disrespect for the dead.
If you find yourself wishing you could have shared in this fine time in Banning, you are not entirely out of luck. On Wednesday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m., in Eaton Humanities 1B50 on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, the accomplished Colorado political commentator Eric Sondermann and I will hold a public conversation celebrating alternatives to “The New Normal: Conflict, Polarization, and Incivility.” This program will be shorter than the reunion (and there will be no dancing), but it should be nearly as much fun.