For anyone who has ever wondered what ethical questions might confront a college student, Dr. Caryn Musil offered a snapshot of a typical morning routine:
The hypothetical student rises and gets dressed. She might wonder where the seams on her jeans were sewn and how much that worker earned. What was the environmental impact of the dyes used in their production, and the carbon imprint of the jet that transported them to the United States?
She then wonders whether to wake up her roommate, who has been out drinking for several nights and missing class, and whether to alert someone in residence life to a possible problem. Her dilemmas continue at breakfast, with questions about the source of the foods offered and their economic and social implications, and in class, where she sits next to a veteran of the war in Iraq, which she disagrees with but does not want to discuss in a way that is insensitive to her classmate’s sacrifice.
“These are the kinds of questions a student might have, and how will faculty and those in student affairs help them learn to think through and make sense of all these issues?” Musil said in her April 2 talk titled “No Longer Elective: Educating for Responsibility.”
The senior vice president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Musil was on campus to speak about the Core Commitments program, of which she is the director and BGSU a participant. President Sidney Ribeau is a member of the advisory board for Core Commitments and works with Musil on an outreach committee to educate other University presidents about the importance of education for personal and social responsibility.
The guiding philosophy of Core Commitments is that:
• Student learning is the collective obligation of all individuals and units responsible for the curriculum and co-curriculum.
• Education for personal and social responsibility, to be intentionally fostered in all students, should pervade institutional cultures.
• Higher education institutions have an educational and civic obligation to unapologetically teach for personal and social responsibility.
• Ethical, civic and moral development should be closely tied to a substantive vision for student learning that is shared across constituent groups.
• The development of personal and social responsibility is cumulative, built on prior knowledge and experience, and should be assessed along the way.
One of the reasons Bowling Green was “at the top of the list” among the 135 applicants for a Core Commitments grant is that it promotes its values-exploration emphasis in its recruiting and marketing efforts, Musil said. BGSU received the $25,000 grant in 2007 from AAC&U.
“Bowling Green is not embarrassed to talk publicly about values and personal responsibility,” she said. “You are helping students to become leaders themselves.”
Looking inward first
One of the first steps in the process of teaching for social and personal responsibility is to assess students, faculty, student affairs staff and academic administrators’ perceptions of opportunities for personal and social responsibility across the institution.
BGSU has surveyed its four groups. As part of the discussion following Musil’s talk, Dr. William Knight, director of institutional planning and research, reported on the outcomes, which he said “almost exactly parallel the national results.” Some of the findings were disturbing, he said, and the campus will need to look more deeply to understand them. For example, there was a discrepancy between what faculty and administrators see and what students see. Moreover, first-year students reported more awareness of these opportunities than did seniors.
Dr. John Folkins, CEO of the BGSU Research Institute, noted that in the area of engagement, it might be the case that, as students become more socially aware and responsible, “their horizons move outward” and they focus more on how far they have to go in their development instead of how far they have come.
Another common result of the survey, both at BGSU and nationally, is that while everyone tends to agree on the importance of education for responsibility, no one seems to take ownership of it. “Everyone agrees that there’s a clear gap between what should be and what is,” Musil said. Nevertheless, “students at the participating universities believe they’re stronger in the five dimensions of social and personal responsibility. In other words, it matters that they’ve been here.”
Responding to a changing world
The world is changing so quickly that it is challenging higher education, whose leaders are normally “deeply deliberative,” to change the way it does business, Musil said. Today, she said, “uncertainty is the norm, complexity is routine and diversity is a given,” all of which mean students have different needs now. A transformation in the academy is under way, she said, and nowhere more so than in Ohio, where the state system of higher education is changing.
“Teaching must become more exploratory and more inventive,” and the academy more agile if it is to educate students to function as responsible citizens in the world they will inhabit.
A college degree is becoming less the privilege of the wealthy and more a necessity for all, she said. The view of education as a private good for personal enrichment is being challenged by the view that education is a public good for community purposes, economic reallocations of opportunities and global cohesion.
To be effective, learning must be more experiential and curricula less Western-centered, and there must be more synthesis and integration in place of the disparate group of courses students took in the past, Musil said.
In today’s world, she said, we know that students learn best when engaged in real-world situations, classroom barriers are more permeable than ever, students are “co-creators of knowledge and not the blank slates” once believed, and institutions embody the values that influence student development.
“Students are reading us when they look at our brochures and visit our campuses. If they don’t see an emphasis on personal and social responsibility right up front, and if institutions don’t place a value on it, then they can only assume it isn’t important in this environment,” she said.