A few years ago my oldest son took a required sociology course at Baylor for a general education class that introduced him to sociological theory. He found it uninteresting and irrelevant to his life. Indeed, surveys discover most students find general education uninteresting and irrelevant to their lives (for a review of the research see this chapter 4). Although blame for this view can come from a number of reasons, I think one of the key problems is that we think the liberal arts do magical things without connecting them to moral ends. I contend they do not.
Now, imagine that instead of that course, my son had taken a course that addressed the topic of what it means to be a good neighbor (and was introduced to Christian ethics, sociological theory, and other liberal arts as tools for helping one be a good neighbor). Furthermore, imagine the class helped students not simply think creatively, critically, and redemptively about Christian practices related to being a good neighbor but also involved learning to act in those ways. That course might assist him with an endeavor he will practice for the rest of his life
Some might argue that such teaching is too simplistic or, perhaps, not needed (these are obviously not college employees who work in residence halls). These skeptics need to sign up for a neighborhood e-mail social messaging service like Nextdoor. As Philip Bump tweeted recently, “Millennials and Gen Z have no idea that the most bonkers social network is actually Nextdoor.” Indeed, just like many students in the residence hall, you realize that most people in actual neighborhoods do not understand how to be good neighbors.
Now, I should note that not everything discussed through Nextdoor is bad. All kinds of good things are shared about helpful plumbers, answers to a question about how to get a bird out of a chimney, or a positive review of a new local restaurant. In addition, neighbors notify each other about missing dogs and cats (one recent post actually asked “why are there so many missing pets on here?”). There is also the sharing of innocent gossip (what’s being built at….?) and the gossip bordering on nosey (e.g., “Anyone have information on the accident that happened before 8 am on Hewitt Dr.?”). They also share about break-ins or possible intruders and how to greet them with Texas hospitality, “Someone rang my doorbell at around 5:00 am this morning!!… I was too tired, or I would’ve gotten up to meet them with my shotgun & 5 dogs!!” Unfortunately, this practice sometimes involves worrying about a “shady” person in the neighborhood knocking on a door (usually someone who does not look like them).
In addition to this concerning last practice, one also finds a substantial dose of other vices associated with being a bad neighbor. For instance, one consistently sees the passive-aggressive approach to solving conflict regarding noise (e.g., a barking dog). Here’s a recent one, “Considerate neighbors becoming a thing of the past?? You put up a basketball goal on the sidewalk and play in the street from midnight to past 2 am? Basketball bouncing on asphalt is not a pleasant sound when you’re trying to relax or sleep.” Fortunately, one adult in the virtual room suggested the incensed neighbor go talk to the neighbor instead of posting on Nextdoor about the issue.
Instead of this simple practice, posters try to whip up mob support for one’s outrage without actually confronting a neighbor. Since we’re in Texas, one person posted recently, “I know we live in the country. But our houses are still too close together on Chapel Rd. for you to be shooting a long-range rifle. There are kids and animals out here. How do I get this to stop?” Again, someone had to make the suggestion to talk directly with the person.
Then there is also the passive-aggressive approach to enforcing local codes or sensibilities:
- “I hope everyone is aware that you cannot park in the front yard on the grass. It is against…city code.”
- Hi neighbors. I hate complaints on Next Door but I am going to do it myself. PLEASE… stop putting dog poo bags into your neighbor’s can after they have been emptied while you are walking your dog. I don’t have a dog and don’t want to store the poop for a week in my trash can for you.
Not surprisingly, one poster noted recently, “When I joined [Nextdoor], I thought it would be about neighbors helping neighbors. It is mostly neighbors sniping at neighbors.”
Then some simply like to expand their sniping to local businesses, politics, or people and practices in general. Here’s one recent example:
I need to vent…Almost every morning from the Spring Valley fly-over onto I-35, an individual in front of me travels no faster than 40 m-50 mph. This morning, an accident almost transpired, because the person ahead of me was slow-poke driving while entering I-35. If you are scared to drive the speed limit on 35…take the side roads. Thank you! Sorry, I’m a bit angry.
Certainly, posting on Nextdoor is cheaper than talking to one’s psychologist. Another similar venting post contained a picture of an open bag of Lays potato chips showing that the bag is only a third full: “So I think Lays is officially a con artist here…. just opened this bag and it’s literally only a 3rd or a quarter of the way filled $3.50 mainly for air. That is crazy. Air pump at gas station is cheaper!” Perhaps one could argue that academics just do this sort of venting in sophisticated ways on Christian blog sites or through Twitter, but I think any discussion of what it means to be an excellent neighbor, whether live or on social media, should conclude that venting is not an aspirational quality (although having the patience to listen to another neighbor in need would be).
The whole experience is a reminder that Americans are losing social connections (e.g., Bowling Alone) and that people are desperate for them through any means necessary. However, our fallenness gets in the way. The problem is that Nextdoor cannot substitute for a good neighbor relationship produced by physical proximity and continual positive interaction. Recently, one person asked for help with rent money and another person said that Nextdoor was not the forum for sharing those needs. Not a Good Samaritan neighborly response.
The first thing students should learn is to start with a moral vision of neighborliness and a positive initial first contact (in contrast to my first interaction with one California neighbor who knocked on our door, never introduced himself, and complained about cars in front of his house). Now, my wife did not have a liberal arts education or a required sociology course, but she has this moral vision and consistently establishes positive initial first contact. As a result, she has gotten to know many of our neighbors and often helps a number of the older widows and retired couples on many occasions by bringing them meals, checking on them, and simply visiting.
She also makes sure to expand the neighborly circle. For example, over a decade ago we took cookies to the new Pakistani-Muslim family that moved into a house in our neighborhood. As a result of that first encounter, my wife has enjoyed a long friendship with both the wife and children, a relationship that has involved numerous different types of interactions: the Muslim mother visiting my wife’s Bible study, my wife attending a women’s only Muslim pool party, my wife teaching the Muslim daughter how to bake, and my wife attending special family events, and more.
Modeling is contagious. My son became good friends with the Muslim couple’s son that was his age and ended up speaking at his graduate party about what he appreciates about his Muslim friend (to around a hundred Muslims from across the United States; my wife and son were the only Christians there). It all started because my wife wanted to bring cookies to her neighbor. One does not have to take a general education class or live in residence life to learn that skill, but she is already an expert good neighbor.
For our students who are just beginning to learn about being excellent neighbors, instead of taking a required liberal arts course with opaque moral ends, it would help to study the crisis of neighborhoods and social connections in America via sociological theory, the Christian virtues that comprise being an excellent neighbor, and then be asked to put them to practice on campus or the apartment complex where they are located. After all, it is the second most important love we are to practice.