There was a time, not long ago, when the arrival of new occupants in the house next door, across the street, or down the road would automatically trigger the baking of apple pies, peach cobblers and cherry turnovers. These edible tokens of greeting might be placed on the newcomers’ doorsteps with an accompanying note that simply read, “Welcome Neighbor!” Alternatively, a child might be dispatched to make the delivery. More times than not, the baker would show up in person to offer words of welcome and initiate a relationship.
Ours was a more open and less fearful society. Though Americans had long venerated rugged individualism and self-reliance, such virtues were offset by love of family and engagement in community. Neighbors represented a bridge between family and the institutions of civil society, and neighborliness was assumed to promote both individual welfare and the common good.
In predominantly Protestant America, the interpretation of scripture elevated neighborliness to an article of faith. Whereas the Douay-Rheims Bible translated Leviticus 19:18 to read: “Thou shalt love thy friend as thyself,” and the Jewish Publication Society interprets the verse as: “Love your fellow as yourself,” both the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version of the bible establish one’s neighbor as the object of the imperative. (The New American Bible – Revised Edition followed suit in translating the verse to read: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”)
Until relatively recently (in the greater sweep of history), familiarity with the interior of neighboring homes was commonplace. Neighbors could comfortably be called upon to do more than lend a proverbial cup of sugar. They frequently supervised, fed and babysat each other’s children, shared tools and other household implements, car-pooled children to and from school, looked after each other’s homes, and tended one another’s gardens if one was out of town.
Nowadays, not so much. Sadly, many of us are just as likely to regard our neighbors with suspicion as to love them as ourselves. Perhaps doing so signifies nothing more than our human nature. Were it otherwise, one might argue, there would scarcely have been a need for Leviticus 19:18. When neighbors come to personify the archetypal other, it’s but a short step to the belief that “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Ambivalence about neighborliness is reliably examined in our popular culture. On the one hand it’s easy to find lists such as “The 10 Most Disturbing Movies About Neighbors.” Then again, it’s not difficult to think of hugely successful hits such as Home Alone, in which a fear-inducing, apparently misanthropic neighbor (rumored to be the ‘Snow Shovel Murderer’) turns out to be a kindly old man. And there are more complex and nuanced films such as Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, in which the protagonist’s attitude toward his different-than-me neighbors undergoes a transformation. When it’s all said and done, neighborliness remains a virtue, as we are reminded by a major insurer that spends many millions of dollars to encourage the public to think of it like a good neighbor.
Virtue that it may be, revolutionary advances in telecommunications and the ubiquity of social media have no doubt contributed to the erosion of neighborliness. Nowadays, hanging out with people who live half way around the world often requires less effort than engaging with our next door neighbors in person. We’ve become less likely to borrow cups of sugar from one another because the underlying familiarity that allows for such sharing has become marginal, if it exists at all. And I would submit that the diminution of neighborliness does not bode well for a nation that is increasingly riven by political division.
Can our schools promote neighborliness? Virtually every private school teaches some version of the Golden Rule, whether in the form of a universal ethical imperative, a more particularistic interpretation, or something in between. Of equal or greater importance, many of our schools endeavor to model neighborliness on an institutional level, whether by making facilities available to the surrounding community, partnering with other nearby schools and businesses for civic and/or charitable purposes, serving as polling places, building a community service component into the curriculum, or any of numerous other ways.
Our state has just been battered by a series of devastating storms that have taken lives and destroyed property. Tens of counties have been declared disaster areas. In widespread areas of the state a great many schools have, once again, faced disruption and anxiety. As the rain subsides, the threat of flooding and mudslides abates, and a sense of normalcy returns, leaders of schools located in impacted areas might consider reaching out to counterparts in nearby schools, both private and public, to extend greetings, ask how they’re doing, and offer words of comfort, solidarity and support.
That would be mighty neighborly!
Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.