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Our communities are struggling. Are we to blame?

Our communities are increasingly divided and weakened. Is Notre Dame partially to blame?

During the last presidential election, nearly eight in ten registered voters believed that their disagreements with the other side were not only about politics and policies, but “core American values.” While the right and left diagnose society’s ills differently, they surprisingly identify one of the same symptoms. Scholars as disparate as Patrick Deneen and Cornel West agree that the loss of community felt by many Americans is a problem of immediate and fundamental concern. At the University of Notre Dame, community is foremost; the mission statement affirms that “[i]n all dimensions of the University, Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of an authentic human community [emphasis added] graced by the Spirit of Christ.” Why, then, is Notre Dame and its student body a significant — and often unknowing — perpetrator of this loss of community?

The answer to this question is simple: Notre Dame suffers from the same destructive meritocratic hubris infecting elite institutions everywhere. In his book “The Tyranny of Merit,” Michael Sandel defines meritocratic hubris as “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” Meritocrats believe people should and do get ahead on their own ability, and that credentials are the gold standard for determining success and prestige. Thus, in a meritocracy, the most credentialed and talented rule. For all the talk about Notre Dame’s unique Catholic identity, we often forget the Catholic Church’s universal call to family, community and participation when we hyper-fixate on self-fulfilling credentials such as prestigious internships, fellowships and job offers. 

What makes meritocratic hubris so pernicious is the ease with which it develops in people who genuinely mean well. It often arises from supportive friends and family telling us that we deserve the opportunity to attend Notre Dame because of our hard work. While there is nothing wrong with kind words from others, we often internalize the notion that we’ve gotten ahead all on our own. We convince ourselves that because we worked hard, we deserve all the success that comes from it. We forget — especially at a university where 75% of students come from families in the top 20% of income — that without our family, teachers, friends, neighbors and overall community, we would not be where we are today. In “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls reminds us that “[e]ven the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving [emphasis added] in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances.” Tragically, our hubris weakens the communities most worthy of our support and gratitude.

Let me be clear: We should still celebrate our accomplishments. But having a healthy dose of meritocratic humility and understanding the sacrifice of the people around us and the inevitable luck involved in our success can go a long way in making the world a more inclusive, community-oriented place. We can’t build up our communities if we fail to realize their value. Without incredible teachers, a supportive family, a bit of luck and financial assistance from my community, I would not be attending Notre Dame. With humility, we can better understand the importance of community and work toward strengthening it, not diminishing it.

If we don’t strengthen our communities, our democracy is at stake. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt warns that societies are more susceptible to authoritarianism when loneliness becomes an everyday experience. It is no surprise that Donald Trump has risen to power during the present time of isolation, inequality and cultural grievances. He tapped into a growing number of Americans who felt forgotten, detached from their communities and disdained by the meritocratic elite. Without a course correction and newfound emphasis on community, illiberal forces will only get stronger. 

This gets back to my first point. As more Americans feel a loss of community because of the disconnect between themselves and the credentialed elite, Notre Dame and its student body must do some introspection about the role they play in cultivating this tension. Meritocracy and credentialism are not completely morally bankrupt; I’d definitely prefer to have a surgeon remove my appendix and an electrician wire my house. If we want to thrive, we can’t completely avoid a society where technical/professional competence is valued. But if we are to get serious about addressing what’s ailing our society and the role Notre Dame plays in perpetuating it, it’s time to acknowledge their corrosive effects. As a Catholic institution, we can play a critical role in affirming the dignity of all humans — regardless of credentials or merit — while also promoting the virtue of humility. It starts by acknowledging and reflecting on the hubris we hold.

We must not forget Jesus’s teaching, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jacob Sherer is a junior majoring in political science with a minor in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). Originally from Wisconsin, Jacob lives in Duncan Hall on campus. He currently serves as the President of BridgeND. Feel free to contact him by email, jsherer@nd.edu, with any questions, comments or general inquiries.

BridgeND is a student-led discussion club that is committed to bridging polarization in politics and educating on how to engage in respectful and productive discourse. BridgeND welcomes students of all backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences who want to strengthen their knowledge of current issues or educate others on an issue that is important to them. The club meets weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in the McNeill Room of LaFortune. Want to learn more? Contact bridgend@nd.edu or @bridge_ND on Twitter and Instagram.

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