Can—and Should—Colleges Educate the Whole Person?

Why secular institutions should cultivate students’ well-rounded development.

November 3, 2022

Within the Jesuit tradition, there is a concept, “cura personalis,” which means to care for the whole person. When applied to education, this principle seeks to promote the personal development of the whole person, mentally, but also physically, ethically and, yes, spiritually.

I find this idea of educating the whole person inspiring. In my view, a college education shouldn’t just cultivate students’ cognitive, analytic and problem-solving abilities or expand their content knowledge or merely instill the cultural literacies that we associate with a rich liberal arts education. It should nurture their development across every dimension: emotional, ethical, physical and social.

Shouldn’t the goal of an undergraduate education go beyond producing budding businessfolk or chemists or engineers or literary critics or manufacturing career-ready graduates? Look at any institutional mission statement or set of graduation requirements and you’ll see that institutions want to help instill a sense of purpose and direction, impart ethical and cross-cultural awareness, inculcate emotional intelligence, and implant the capacity for self-reflection that we associate with a mature adult.

Yet few secular institutions strive to actually achieve those objectives.

I know full well the objections to such a vision. After all, its roots are religious, and in a liberal society, isn’t there something intrusive and patronizing in imagining that colleges should help students mature? Then there’s a more practical concern. If colleges find it hard to produce graduates who can write gracefully or crunch numbers accurately or speak a foreign language fluently, how can they realistically think that they can promote students’ well-rounded development?

Colleges already have gradually inflated their responsibilities beyond the purely academic at great cost and with uncertain results. Shouldn’t we recognize that some tasks, however worthy in the abstract, are beyond campuses’ capabilities?

Anyway, don’t student life offices already promote undergraduates’ developmental needs in appropriately voluntary ways: through expanded access to psychological counseling and access to a wealth of intramural sports and other physical activities, like yoga classes and sponsorship of a vast array of clubs and other campus organizations and social activities that give students lots of chances to develop their social skills?

Yes. But none of this is sufficient, not when loneliness on campus is rampant, anxiety and stress levels are extremely elevated, and many interpersonal interactions, in dorms but also in classrooms, are fraught.

Many contentious issues on our campuses grow out of a failure to promote students’ holistic development:

  • Students who lack a sense of direction.
  • Students who are unable to communicate effectively with others, whether these are intimate partners, friends or classmates.
  • Students who treat others thoughtlessly or inconsiderately or abusively.
  • Students who find it difficult to manage their time or emotions.
  • Students unable to effectively cope with disappointment, frustration, failure or loss.
  • Students who have been socialized to expect adults to solve their problems.

You might well object: even if educating the whole student is a good idea, how can campuses do this in ways that respect diversity and individuality? Whereas a Jesuit university (or Yeshiva University or Brigham Young or Pepperdine or another religiously affiliated institution) can unapologetically advance certain moral precepts, surely a secular institution can’t—and shouldn’t.

My answer is that we need to institute new kinds of for-credit classes and learning opportunities that promote holistic growth. These courses might be taught by staff professionals, many of whom hold a terminal degree and have special expertise and practical experience in areas outside of faculty members’ know-how. These courses that I envision would focus on:

  • Building self-awareness: Helping students recognize and identify their thoughts, emotions and behaviors and their impact on others.
  • Enhancing self-understanding: Encouraging individual students to reflect on their identity, personality, priorities and aspirations.
  • Contributing to values clarification: Helping students construct and understand their personal value system and how to apply these commitments in real-life situations.

Certainly, there are existing philosophy and psychology classes that do some of this. But I think we need for-credit courses that do something different: that deal directly with students’ personal, academic and career development and place these issues in a scholarly context.

1. Personal Development

A course on personal development might address five dimensions of personal growth:

  • The personal: How individuals define themselves; how various people grapple with Identity issues; and how to identify and assess one’s interests, talents, goals and values.
  • The intrapersonal: How to achieve self-awareness, cope with stress and adversity, manage emotions, and develop resilience.
  • The interpersonal: An examination of common relationship issues, challenges in achieving intimacy, types of friendship and interpersonal dynamics, and issues of power in relationships, including bullying, harassment and peer pressure.
  • The social: Understanding the factors that contribute to feelings of alienation and social isolation. Also, developing leadership skills, including the ability to build relationships, motivate others, resolve conflicts, achieve situational awareness, set and execute goals, make decisions, delegate responsibility, and adapt to shifting circumstances.
  • Life issues: Weathering challenges, overcoming distractions, maintaining life-school balance and coping with family and relationship difficulties and health issues.

2. Academic Development

Somewhat similar to existing College 101 courses, this class would assist students with academic planning and help them develop the study, note-taking, time management, reading, writing and test-taking skills essential for academic success. Such a course would also show students how to make effective use of campus learning support services.

3. Career Development

A career development course would help undergraduates identify career options and opportunities; acquire essential technical, digital and soft skills; actively seek relevant experience; and create a record of demonstrated competencies.

4. Community Service

Such a course gives students the opportunity to apply academic knowledge and skills to address community needs and to reflect on the experience. Service learning enhances civic-mindedness and students’ feelings of self-efficacy and social responsibility. But unlike volunteer work, service learning has an academic dimension that involves research, training and feedback and evaluation.

I fear that our colleges and universities have drawn far too sharp a line between the academic and the personal and between cognitive and noncognitive development. When we draw such distinctions, we forget that college is as much a coming-of-age experience as it is an educational experience, as much about the transition to adulthood as about career preparation, as much about personal growth and maturation as about pre-professional training.

Personal development is too central to a college education to be ignored.

That doesn’t mean that colleges and universities should lecture students about personal morality or rededicate themselves to character formation. But it does suggest that campuses should integrate personal, academic and career development and civic engagement much more squarely within their curriculum.

It’s not enough, in my judgment, to make students watch a training video on sexual or substance abuse or hazing or racism, sexism and other forms of bias and say that we have lived up to our legal obligations. Nor is it sufficient to leave career preparation to a career center located on the campus’s periphery or to mention learning support services at freshman orientation and assume that students will utilize those services when needed.

We need to integrate personal and professional development into the formal curriculum and offer courses where students discuss issues involving identity, gender and racial dynamics, and intimacy.

Let’s embrace the German idea of Bildung, a philosophy of education that considers moral, social and emotional maturation as inseparable from intellectual growth. Bildung was an intrinsic component of the Humboldtian ideal that inspired modern American higher education as it evolved over the course of the 19th century, alongside those other Humboldtian commitments to academic freedom and to the university as an institution dedicated to research and scholarship.

The phrase “educating the whole person” no doubt sounds archaic and outmoded in today’s anything-goes society and neoliberal universities. But what is the purpose of a college or university if it isn’t to help students grow personally as well as intellectually and become mature, responsible and independently minded adults?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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