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The Danger of Group Projects

There is a phrase that strikes dismay and resentment into the heart of every good student: Group Project. Perhaps you are the only one who cares about doing well, or the only one who understands the material well enough to make a meaningful contribution, or the only one willing to put the shoulder to the wheel.

Generally, there are two responses for the isolated, intelligent student in this situation, neither of them good: the first is to curse the numbskull of a teacher who first came up with group projects. This is individualism, and I will address it later.

The second response is to dream of a group that would divide the work reasonably and fairly—that would be more of a team than a group—that would do work worthy of A’s—the chimerical A-Team. A few stellar people with diversity of talents, none of them stepping on the others’ toes or nerves, eminently competent people! That’s what it would take to make a group project worthwhile!

The Downfall of the Dream Team

Let’s say you find just such a group. You find people whose skills perfectly complement your own and the others’. You find people whom you respect, on whom you rely without reservation, with whom the highly improbable seems a piece of cake. Soon enough, reality will burst your bubble of confident capability. The brightest and best colleague will fail, will come up short, will prove himself merely human. Even you sooner or later will forfeit the confidence of others. To suppose otherwise is grossest pride.

Suppose for the sake of argument that the group does not fail, but that each of you performs to undreamt heights of excellence. All your work put together is a mountain of achievement. “None of us could have done it alone,” you might say. “It was a total team effort.” You’ve accomplished great things. You’ve come together and united your strengths. Good for you—but have you borne with each other’s weaknesses?

Love is More than Using People’s Abilities

“Man is by nature a political animal.” “It is not good for man to be alone.” However you phrase that truth and whatever source you cite, you know that life without community is a dismal proposition, community without love is not community, and love is more than using people for their abilities. Appreciate them, yes, recommend them, yes, work beside them, yes—but more than any of that, loving them means making sacrifices for the sake of their weakness. You aren’t bound together until you’ve failed together.

All of the above applies even to a group that gets along well; but when a group doesn’t, it applies even more. In the words of Jesus, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” If you forgive only the faults of one for whom you have affection, you may have given them grace—but if that’s all you do, you’ve missed a chance to strengthen and soften your own heart. Grace to a friend is easy. Grace to an enemy is love, and love is hard. Some people are hard to love, but it’s not optional. Love is necessary for a group to have solidarity and effectuality; but more importantly, love is commanded by God. Disobedience is not in your best interest.

Not Called to Live in Isolation

What about the Individualist who deplores the very existence of group projects? “Let me be measured by my own work,” is his cry, and he has a point. The purpose of classroom group projects should probably not be to force you to sacrificially love your lazy classmates by dooming you to do their work or fail with them. Let’s not be mixing up academic growth with spiritual growth, then slapping a grade on it and sending you off to another class where a teacher or potential employer has no way of knowing what of your grade was sacrificed on the altar of character building.

Be careful, though, first, that your individualism is not pride and disdain for others; and second, that the individualism that is debatably appropriate in a classroom does not carry over into life outside of academia. You are not called to live in isolation. You are called to a life of service in the Church. Regardless of your personality or gifts, group projects for their own sake are not worthless; they are an exercise in laying down your life—giving up your will and independence—in small ways, that you may be increasingly ready when the greater need arises. And it will arise. St. Paul wrote to the saints at Philippi, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

Now, whether you’re a dream-teamer or an individualist, you might be very angry with me right now. I hope you are. It is my intention to discomfit you. I hope also, though, that when you’re done being angry you’ll receive the back-handed encouragement that is my higher purpose. Every conviction is also a call, an opportunity even, to repent and trust in Christ and live more fully in love, grace, and service.


Author: Emily Maxson

Emily Maxson graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in History and an addiction to research. Although her teaching career has paused to make way for her upcoming wedding, she maintains interests in education, theology, and literature. Her favorite authors include Cornelius Van Til, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot, and Geerhardus Vos.

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