Should a large, public university like the University of Connecticut consider itself responsible for the moral development of its students? If it should, what would fulfilling that responsibility look like? What gives an institution the moral authority to claim such a responsibility in the first place?
These questions may seem a bit far-fetched. Yet, questions of morality on a college campus seem especially relevant during a time when many of these institutions seem to be held together, in a large part, by the hope that their students have a strong sense of social responsibility.
Last week in the first part of my series on higher education, I introduced Minerva College, which was founded on the belief that the classic model of college undercuts the goals of a liberal arts education. Part of Minerva’s re-designed model for higher education is that their students are relocated to a different city every semester, whether San Francisco, Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Taipei or Buenos Aires.
Moving students to a new place every semester provides one possible way for an institution to take responsibility for the moral development of its students. When you are thrown into an environment that is so remarkably different from what you are accustomed to, it is nearly impossible to not question your assumptions about who you are, who you can be, how you live, how you see other people and what you believe about yourself in relation to others. When you are in that environment, not for a short touristic trip but for an extended period of time, developing an intellectual, moral reasoning for answering some of those questions becomes not only more likely, but also necessary.
At a conference about justice in higher education, it was said that, “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.” The importance of direct experience in intellectual and moral development rationalizes Minerva’s radical approach. An entirely new place provides a direct experience where developing an intellectual and moral framework is necessary, and that framework can be tested in a non-trivial way.
There are many reasons why moving to a different location every couple of months wouldn’t be a desirable, practical or even healthy way for a lot of students to spend four years. Fortunately, globe-trotting isn’t the only way to ask those questions and develop that sort of intellectual and moral reasoning.
The strength of state schools is that their size, resources, place in local communities and the racially and socioeconomically diverse student bodies they attract give them the ability to provide direct experience to their students in powerful ways. Students can have the opportunity to live with other students who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They can be actively involved with the local community and socialize with people who have remarkably different interests from them. They can also join clubs and organizations with people from different cultural backgrounds.
The caveat is that at such institutions, it’s largely up to students to find these experiences. At an institution like UConn, questions of taking responsibility for the moral development of its students are arguably more complex than at small liberal arts or religious schools where this responsibility is the tradition. This could be because students choose to attend UConn for a far greater range of reasons and engage in a greater range of ways than are often represented at other types of schools. This makes it difficult, and perhaps not even worthwhile, for a place like UConn to establish a very specific idea of what a student should get out of their time in school. It also makes it less likely that there will be specific systems in place to steer students away from social defaults. Perhaps, though, it is more meaningful to find direct experience in a place that offers it abundantly, but doesn’t force it upon you.
The purpose of establishing any sort of intellectual and moral framework where we form opinions and make decisions should be to develop a “well-educated solidarity.” It is what I call kinetic empathy — a way of seeing and feeling that fills every single part of our lives with purpose and beauty so that we are moved to action on behalf of others. Whether an institution provides a prescribed way of actualizing that or not, as individuals and as students, this should always be the foundational goal of our education.