Educating for Responsibility

Lots of colleges talk about preparing students for civic and social contributions. New study explores why students only get the message at some institutions.
August 24, 2007

It's almost a cliché for a college to boast about how it is preparing students to be responsible citizens, to care about the world, to serve others. Whether on campus Web sites or in presidents' speeches, the rhetoric is there.

It's also the case that while many students are deeply engaged in service and their communities, and aspire to keep such commitments after graduation, plenty aren't -- even at institutions that boast about promoting such values. A long-term research project seeks to determine whether such values can be taught and, if so, how they are taught. Results -- including an analysis of three colleges considered to be exemplars of this kind of education -- are being published today in a collection of essays, Responsibility at Work: How Leading Professionals Act (or Don't Act) Responsibly (Jossey-Bass).

Edited by Howard Gardner, an education and psychology professor at Harvard University, most of the essays focus on different professions, which along with higher education were examined through the GoodWork Project, the research arm that led to the book. The research also looks at how colleges can set people in a variety of professions on a path toward ethical conduct in their varied careers.

That study found that certain common characteristics -- such as viewing the campus as a microcosm, explicit demonstration (as opposed to just talk) of values, and rituals -- were present at the institutions where students perceived the teaching of ethics and responsibility to be as strong as institutional mission statements suggested it would be.

Jeanne Nakamura, an assistant professor of behavioral and organizational sciences at the Claremont Graduate School, describes in the book an in-depth study of 10 highly regarded colleges and universities. For all of them, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with faculty and administrators about their views of institutional mission and teaching the idea of responsibility, and then did a survey of students to see how they saw their institutions providing guidance.

Three institutions -- Morehouse, Mount St. Mary's and Swarthmore College -- were clearly different from the others in terms of students actually experiencing at high levels the values that the faculty and administrators thought they were passing along. While those three are all relatively small liberal arts institutions, the larger group of 10 included other sectors of higher education.

And Nakamura notes in the chapter that the three colleges that were matching student perceptions with institutional goals had plenty of differences -- Morehouse is historically black and for men, Mount St. Mary's is a women's college, Swarthmore has Quaker roots. The key, Nakamura writes, is that beyond their identities, the colleges each have an ethos that is communicated to students in many ways -- and that this communication comes in specific actions. The "action" part of her findings appears to set these colleges apart from many others that appear to do a lot of talking about these issues, but where students don't feel a real push about service or values.

Nakamura stresses in the book that the actions colleges take may well be informal and outside the formal curriculum, but that they are reflected with some consistency. For example, at Morehouse, many professors and students talked about the idea that faculty members were providing "tough love" to students, acting in some ways as parents instructing on values as well as whatever subject areas they taught. At Swarthmore, the Quaker value of consensus was seen as evident in faculty meeting and seminar discussions that aimed more for consensus than up or down votes. At Mount St. Mary's, a Roman Catholic college where almost all students are on financial aid and the majority are the first in their families to attend college, the ethos is about "caring" and "nurturing" and students are aware that relatively limited resources go to areas like one-on-one tutoring.

In all three cases, with different ways of conveying the message, the matching of college's ideology with specific actions was key in instilling values of service to community to students, Nakamura writes. Students associated their sense of feeling obliged to society in their life choices from those actions.

One way the colleges reinforce those feelings is through rituals, which Nakamura reports have a real impact. For example, "Mary's Day" at Mount St. Mary's is a convocation at which honors and awards are given out, but also at which students together read the Magnificat, in which Mary agrees to be the mother of Jesus. A participant quoted in the study said, "The whole notion of the awards is that 'I say yes. I have this ability, but now it's my turn to say yes.' " At Morehouse, a tradition focuses on students' first arrival on campus, when during one ceremony, parents are invited to write their wishes for their sons on pieces of paper, which are collected, symbolizing the idea that their sons are at college with a shared purpose.

While the book does not identify the colleges that were not found to have a match between stated purpose and student perception, Nakamura said via e-mail that the institutions were a mix of public and private, large and small, and that some of those found not to have that connection were also liberal arts colleges, like those that were praised.

"The obvious factor is that in all organizations the bar is low for statements of mission relative to the finite resources of the institution, including the time, attention, and energies of the people working in them, and the temptation is high to lay out more aspirations than it is really possible to enact in a sustained enough way that they register in students' experience," Nakamura said.

She stressed that students at the colleges not cited by name weren't negative about their entire experiences, but about their non-academic growth. "Students across the seven schools felt that their institutions prioritized and contributed strongly to their intellectual development, so in this important area there was alignment. However, they felt that they cared much more than their institutions did about their preparation to lead a happy life, their acquisition of self-knowledge, and their definition of a set of values."

Nakamura acknowledged that it may be more difficult for larger institutions to instill the same common set of values as is found at smaller colleges, but she said that the task for college leaders at such institutions is the same -- to ask about the priorities of the institution and how it could set examples of behaviors and values.

"I think the same basic questions are worth posing for any institution aiming to cultivate civic and social engagement in the sense of living responsibly with others and doing work that serves others or betters society," she said. "How can the conditions of daily experience be shifted to support the goals, both in terms of removing obstacles and supporting new patterns? How can you shape or create daily practices and ongoing social relations (with other students, with faculty and staff, with the community), and less obviously how can you organize physical space and structure time, so that students are able to practice' responsibility? What does the institution already do well, and can 'practicing responsibility' be integrated with it? What is the institution itself modeling for students?"


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