Needed: A Curriculum for Courage
November 14, 2012 - 3:00am
While attending college, a traditionally aged student makes the remarkable transformation from an adolescent to a young adult, and such rapid growth requires courage. Therefore, in addition to encouraging a student to write, speak and think like an adult, colleges must attend to a student’s need for courage. It is a commonplace observation that parents today over-protect their children. They schedule children’s activities, programming them from morning to night. Even when children have left for college, parents hover over them, checking in by phone between classes. Our students need to summon the courage to take charge of their own lives in order to construct new ideas, to explore the world, and to grow in any meaningful way.
It is hard to teach courage—it has to be modeled in the classroom, on the athletic field, and in the residence halls. A liberal arts college is especially well positioned to foster courage. Our faculty know our students not only as learners but also as individuals with particular histories, talents, ethics and aspirations. The liberal arts curriculum also necessarily forces students out of their comfort zone by requiring them to take courses outside their major, in areas that may be new or difficult for them. In the residence halls, they live with students who come from very different backgrounds and cultures—they cannot live solely in the company of students who think and act as they do. And we all stress the value, even the necessity, of studying in an unfamiliar culture.
At Washington & Jefferson College we decided to address the need for courage head-on. And it has changed our college and our students, fostering rapid intellectual and social growth and supporting our students as they emerge as informed, independent thinkers. For example, a group of students established a theme-based residence hall called Civics House where they intentionally room with those with whom they disagree on an important and contentious issue. Republican lives with Democrat and pro-life lives with pro-choice. They live together in order to learn how to understand and respect one another, even though they have strong and important disagreements.
W&J’s Magellan Program also fosters courage in our students, many of whom have never traveled outside the United States and Canada. This program sends students off into the world on their own to complete a project of their own devising—to interview internally displaced workers in China or to walk in Hemingway’s footsteps in Paris or to backpack from Quito to Lima studying national identity. Magellan requires students to encounter unfamiliar cultures in an unmediated way and to solve problems on their own. They learn to talk to people that they do not know, to find a way home when the last bus up the mountain has left them behind, and to redesign their project when they discover that the people they wanted to interview are inaccessible. This kind of independent adventure requires months of careful preparation on the part of the student and their project advisors because it does not have the familiar safety nets of most study abroad ventures—there is no accompanying faculty member or hosting institution to smooth the way for the student. Magellan forces students to summon their courage. It pushes them out of the nest and sets them on the journey to adulthood.
Growth—real growth—takes courage. Informed, independent thinking takes courage. These are the fundamental goals of a liberal arts college education, allowing students to achieve the more familiar goals of learning to write, to speak, to think critically, to master a subject, and to gain general knowledge of the natural world, the arts, human cultures and societies. The courage to encounter the unfamiliar and to think independently is also the keystone of our participatory democracy. Our democracy will not stand unless liberal arts colleges make the most of their special strengths—small classes, engaged faculty, and the opportunity for 24-hour education in the residence halls—to foster the crucial trait of courage.
Tori Haring-Smith, President
Washington & Jefferson College