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Social Cohesion Helps Prevent Psychological Injury

— A student writes amusingly in a college commonplace book: “There’s this solidarity that comes from making it through a hard class together—it’s sort of like war.” It isn’t really like war of course, but it is true that all life experiences which are difficult and prolonged—and for many people college is such an experience—do have features in common, and we can learn how to help people through these experiences if we engage in a little comparative psychology. To that end, all educators concerned about college student welfare should read and take to heart many of the recommendations offered by Jonathan Shay in his important new book on the psychological support of soldiers, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

Shay is a U.S. Veterans’ Administration psychiatrist who has devoted his career to the study of traumatic stress and its debilitating aftereffects. His first book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, was an extraordinary work of humane scholarship and it received great acclaim. In Odysseus in America, Shay makes a range of specific recommendations for the support of people living through prolonged stress, with “the leading preventive psychiatry recommendation [being] to keep people together through training, into a fight, and home again.”

Shay demonstrates that social cohesion is, in the language of military sociology, a strength multiplier: “the military strengthening and psychologically protective effect of stable, socially cohesive units is neither scientifically speculative, ambiguous, nor uncertain.” When we destroy social cohesion—in a university setting, by repeatedly moving students from one residence hall to the next, by switching their advisers year after year or term after term, by depriving them of traditions and domestic stability, by preventing them from getting to know their neighbors well—we destroy the ability to face difficult challenges and to accomplish extraordinary things. The academic consequences are dropouts, poor performance, vandalism, and disaffection. (And the academic cure—the establishment of decentralized residential college systems with high levels of social cohesion—has as its military counterpart the creation of regimental systems within armies, an approach often recommended by experts on military organization.)

People in deeply stressful situations can often make it through successfully, Shay reports, as long as they belong to socially cohesive groups and as long as those with authority over them (who are supposed to be “on their side”) don’t betray themis—the ancient concept of justice that Shay translates as “what’s right.” The transformation wrought in the minds of veterans who have experienced a betrayal of “what’s right” by their superiors is identical to the sad transformation I have seen in students who have been victimized by broken university bureaucracies: “[their] worldview is based on an expectancy of exploitation for other people’s advancement.”

Shay forcefully rejects the nomenclature that characterizes people who suffer from the long-term effects of stress and from a betrayal of “what’s right” as having a disorder. What they have, he says bluntly, is an injury. Stable and cohesive social communities multiply individual strengths and protect people from injury by the hostile world around them. The cultivation of such communities is one of the most fundamental obligations of a university.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021