Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 11/17/2004 5:35 AM
Random Thought: A Failing of Our Higher Education System

Well, I've been meditating to get in the mood to go to the Lilly conference on excellence in college teaching held annually on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Actually, I don't have to get myself up too much since I haven't as yet come down to far from the conference I attended last week in Montreal (pronounced Mon-ray-al).

As I started warming myself up for Lilly in the chilly air on my pre-dawn walk this morning, I was thinking about a column by David Brooks that appeared a couple of days ago in the NY TIMES. In commenting about Thomas Wolfe's recent book, he asserted, with what I feel is some degree of accuracy, that highly educated young people are tutored, taught, tested, monitored in all aspects of their intellectual and even sometimes their physical lives. There is, however, one area that is generally ignored, and it is the most important: character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave students alone and run for cover.

But, first a disclaimer. What I am about to share has nothing to do with liberal, middle-of-the road, conservative, humanist, secular, religious, left wing, right wing, and other labels. If it comforts anyone, I am an unashamed left over liberal dinosaur from the '60s and '70s, an unabashed card-carrying member of the ACLU, and president of my synagogue. I am a self-avowed character educator and wholeness teacher. I make no bones about that and offer no apologies.

With that being said, and there's something to say for to having the need to say that, there's a big push at my institution on retention, as well there should be. We assume that there's something automatic about receiving a college degree, that a person with a degree is a better citizens, that a person with a degree will live more comfortably. And, when we accept a student into our academic fold, we accept a responsibility to that student to do whatever it takes to see that he or she graduates.

I don't believe, however, success of any retention program should be merely determined by the increased numbers of persons who remain in school until they receive their degrees. It must also be determined by the quality of learning and personal growth that occurs during a student's tenure on our campuses. It must not be determined just by a degree people receive to pursue a job. It must also be determined by the character of the people who leave and represent our institutions. We should be concerned with graduating an educated person, not merely a "degreed" person; we should be concerned with graduating a person with a "bachelor of experiences," not merely a "bachelor of grades."

What go me to thinking about this issue was a recent editorial by David Brook in the NY TIMES.

He may have overstated the situation, but not by much. The word character, the ground rules of life, seems so obsolete to so many of our students, a view that very few of academics seem willing to address head on. So many teachers think other are out of their minds when they advocate getting out the mind and into the heart and soul. So many academics wrap words like character, ethics, spirituality, heart, soul, spirit, virtue and morality in banishing, disowning, and often disavowing quotation marks as if there's something quirky, out of place, about them that doesn't belong in an intellectual climate. Sometimes I think so many academics feel so embarrassed, uneasy, queasy about having to get into their hearts and soul.

We academics will teach students "critical thinking skills;" we will hand students the information of a discipline; we will have them write term papers; we will test them; we will give them grades; we will teach them how to hunt for a job; we will get them ready for the research and publication world of the scholar. We will bestow on them the B.A., B.S., M.B.A., M.A., Ph.D. and a host of other often contrived degrees. But, where is our moral substructure? We teach the mind, but do we teach the soul? Ask that question and so many academics will assault you with "You've got to be out of your mind! This is not a church!"

Yet, I ask. Where is the guiding light, the true north, the value system? Where and when do we teach them how to use their learning beyond getting a grade, GPA, diploma, and paycheck? How do we show them the way to a proper and moral and ethical way of life? How to we help them traverse the spans between information, knowledge and wisdom? Do we teach them that the right thing is not always the easy, quick, and simple thing? Do we teach them that good people have to act like good people rather than merely mouth the good words. Do we help them learn to do the right thing in a world that seems to promote rationalizations and excuses that demean or trivialize simple acts of virtue? Do we help them to learn courage, to be willing to take risks, to stand up and be counted, without which there can be no lasting achievement?

I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who said, "To educate a person in the mind but not the morals is to educate a menace to society." We've seen proof of that in headline after headline.

Yet, when it comes to morals and values and virtues, students are left so often in a vacuum, confused and with a vague feeling in their gut that they really should develop it on their own, outside, out of sight, in some place, from someone else, in some manner, shape, and form that only God knows how.

But we academics heartily and spiritedly man the battlements in defense of the Ivory Tower against such attacks that we must address the heart and spirit as well as the mind. We say "that's not my job." We say we're not councilors or parents or clergy. We say that kind of education belongs in the home, church, synagogue, mosque, or wherever. We say we have to be dedicated to our discipline. We point to these one-shot band aid courses in business ethics, medical ethics, leadership we have created. We highlight clinical statements about plagiarism in our syllabi. We spotlight the glowing language in our mission statements. Then, with our thumbs held high, like little Jack Horners, we walk around, proud as you please, saying to ourselves, "What great character builders are we."

Well, are we? Are they really learning "do what is right?" Or, are they learning "do what it takes?" Do they learn the value of virtue rather merely about virtue? Do we teach them to resist the temptation of trading integrity and honesty for grades, income, position, and power? Do they learn that the most important thing about being a good person is wanting to be a good person more than they want a big house, a big paycheck, a big bank account, a big reputation, a big wardrobe, a big ego? Do we enforce, advocate and model the core ethical values of trustworthiness, honesty, caring, integrity, respect, humility, responsibility, courage, and fairness? I wonder.

Look at so many of our graduates: athletic boosters, athletic coaches, athletes, college administrators, business executives, doctors, CPAs, clergy, lawyers, politicians, educators, soldiers, and God only knows who else. Most of them were not college dropouts, but they have proven themselves to be moral dropouts. No, it must be the dual mission of our educational system not only to teach students how to earn a good living, but how to live the good life as well. And, in that I wonder if we're doing a good job.

You know, there are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who find the strength to do what they ought to do and those who find excuses not to. Whom do we graduate? People of character do the right thing even if no one else is, not because they think it will change the world, but because they refuse to be changed by the world. We have to strive to graduate not only honor students, but people who are honorable and put principle above convenience.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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