Sunday, November 22, 2009

Education and Character Formation

Do academics play a role in shaping the character of their students? Writing in Front Page Republic, Jeffrey Polet makes some suggestions about why it's pretty unlikely that they could in the current university system, and how the system might be reshaped in order to change that. I'm fairly ambivalent about any hope of shaping the character of young adults; I'd be happy if I could convince them to do all the readings and not plagiarize! But I also recognize that many of them come in to university dizzy from the tohu-bohu of the outside culture and with some interest in knowing how they can live an ethically serious life. And some of them will look to you to see how you do it, if you do.

Maybe the key word is "serious". There really is a cultural bias against seriousness of any kind. I suspect that comes from a consumer culture that really doesn't encourage serious reflections on life matters, but instead a sort of endless quest for newer and better trivialities. Teenagers will be glib, of course. And there's some merit in that; it reminds us that not everything needs to be taken seriously. But I notice that a lot of older people are almost defensively glib as well, including some academics. That gets a bit old after a while.

Luckily, for us, our job requires us to be serious and meditative about whatever we cone to consider. By this, I don't mean that academics are supposed to be grim and humorless- at least, I hope not. But we are required to think patiently and seriously about... well, everything, basically. I enjoy this. I'm in no hurry to figure out anything. In case it hasn't come across yet, I'm not keen on the rush of contemporary life at all. I lead a very slow life.

I do think there's a mistake is in looking at character formation in necessarily religious terms (not that Pollet is doing that). Of course, there are plenty of religious universities. But, naturally, most people don't want to send their children to public universities and have them proselytized to. Lots of kids come in with their own beliefs. Not to mention the fact that there are so many religious and non-religious systems that it would be something of a mess if everyone was trying to convert their students to their own beliefs! Let them think what they will about metaphysics. Let's talk about scholarship.

On the other hand, university students are at the age in which they have serious questions about right and wrong, and frankly, some of them have no idea which is which. I remember a popular tee shirt among undergrads a few years ago: "It's not a crime if you don't get caught!" And then, others among them will join various political, human rights, environmental, religious, etc. clubs in college because they're really trying to figure out their lives and what matters to them. So, just being an adult who takes seriously those questions- who asserts that they do matter, and that the way we live our lives is nothing to be glib about- probably does have a beneficial effect. That's our role, I think: adults who think seriously about things. And letting them know that you care about them and want them to be serious and honest in their scholarship because you care about their character development is, in my opinion, better policy than absentmindedly giving them those official university handouts about "academic honesty and you". If there's anything we can all agree on in academia, it's that we should fight against the creeping bureaucratic dispassion of academic life!

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