Friday, September 21, 2012

Character as an aim of higher education

"True education seeks to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love."

This statement from educator David O. McKay has always intrigued me.  For me, it is simultaneously inspiring and discouraging.  Inspiring because it speaks to some of my most deeply-held beliefs about the purposes and possibilities of education, yet discouraging because it seems like such a long, steep, and unmarked road for us to climb.  This aim, though not shared universally by institutions of higher education, seems to be commonplace in mission statements in one form or another (see, for example, the mission statements from Westminster College, Mars Hill College, and Longwood University, each of which address character development in their unique way); however, the cynic in me wonders how often we succeed in developing students of high moral, ethical, and civic character.  I become even more worried when I consider the ways in which the current culture of higher education, one that often views learning as a commodity and education as a marketplace where this commodity can be gained merely through some kind of transactional purchase like what we do when we go to the grocery store.  see all of the forces working against us in this effort

Clearly, though, there are thousands of students each year who graduate having had experiences which have had deep and lasting impacts upon their character development.  These are the students who leave our campuses with an appreciation for diverse perspectives, a desire to make meaningful contributions in their community, and an integrity born of hard work and overcoming challenges that arose during their educational experience.  

Those of us who work and live on campuses whose missions include a focus on character development would like to think that our institutional efforts (read:  programs, initiatives, or events) were instrumental in facilitating this kind of growth in students.  Hence, we praise the general education program with a required service-learning component, the required attendance at "chapel" or "devotionals," or the inspiring keynote lecture during "character week" as silver bullets that "transformed" students.  In sum, we often come to believe that it is our technical responses to the need for character development among students that are successful in realizing this aim.  

While there is nothing inherently wrong with formal attempts to support character development, we sometimes neglect the power of human relationships in promoting this type of growth among students.  Hence, my suspicion is that the campuses who are most successful in achieving these aspects of their mission are those who also embrace, emphasize, and value a human response to the challenge of educating students' character.  Those who know me could surely make an argument that my alma mater failed me when it came to the development of my character; however, I would like to think that I experienced some gains in this domain during my undergraduate years.  And, when I think about the experiences that were most impactful in terms of my character, it isn't participation in formal aspects of my education that made the difference.  Rather, it was interactions and associations with roommates, classmates, faculty members, work supervisors, and others that had the greatest influence upon me.  Whether it was a roommate offering gentle correction in response to less than upstanding behavior from me, a faculty member describing how he approaches his research as an attempt to answer "big questions," or a work supervisor who helped me see that there may indeed be other perspectives in the universe outside of my own, it was the quotidian of my experience and not the formalities, that had a cumulatively transformative effect upon me.

It would be a mistake for institutions to eliminate formal programs focused on character development.  The existence of these programs on a campus, if nothing else, serve as a symbolic statement regarding the high value we place on developing character among our students.  And, when designed thoughtfully, these programs can facilitate the unplanned experiences which, in my estimation, are much more powerful in shaping students.  But, if these formalities are not supported by a collective effort among the individual members of the campus community to talk about, model, and celebrate character as an aim of education--e.g. the faculty member who offers holistic mentoring outside her discipline, the classmate who refuses to silence or ignore diverse perspectives, or the administrator who models ethical behavior in all of his interactions--programs will have little impact.  

So, the challenge for campus leaders becomes one of clearly articulating a set of values embracing character development, recruiting and retaining faculty and staff who genuinely believe in and work toward this mission, educating prospective students about what it means to be members of the (fill in institution name here) community, and providing a campus environment (which includes everything from co-curricular programs, to physical spaces, to curricula ) where the day-to-day experiences we have with one another have a chance at building our characters.

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