College and university ethics education has long been a form of character affirmation and civic advancement. Students learn to question ethical foundations acquired from their family and personal experiences to form a coherent philosophy of life that will guide their responses to dilemmas they will face in the future. To test this, discussion questions become versions of “Who gets voted off the island?” or “What happens when you face a no-win set of choices?”
The discussions are sometimes interesting and often purely academic in nature. Students don’t usually have to make these decisions, so they are free to argue broadly as a form of mental gymnastics. That is, until recently.
In educational institutions today, real life-and-death decisions are at hand. “If I contract COVID, do I quarantine myself on campus, where I am isolated and alone, or go home to be with my parents and risk infecting them?” “If I go to class, am I putting others in harm’s way?” “What consequences will I face if I choose to play or not play my sport?” “If a family member contracts the disease, will I ever get to see them again?” “What happens when friends contract COVID?” Life is now filled with risk and long-term consequences.
Higher education institutions have opened recently not only because of financial pressures, but also because they historically provide an optimal environment for students to live and learn. In a recent Axios survey, two-thirds of college students said they wanted to return to campus. Social isolation and loneliness are crucial issues for student-aged populations. A pre-pandemic survey that the American College Health Association conducted in 2017 found more than half of students “felt things were hopeless” over the last 12 months. During that same time frame, 86 percent “felt overwhelmed by the things you have to do” and 63 percent “felt very lonely.”
Emerging data confirm that the current conditions have exacerbated these problems. As educators reimagining education, it’s vital that we recognize these issues. In fact, we have. Student services have made radical changes to orientation, student expectations and even values statements, while professors are upping their teaching skills to accommodate new learning styles.
Still, even students who are seemingly well adjusted now find themselves in need of coping skills without the confidential resources universities often provide. Privacy is increasingly becoming a casualty of contact tracing. People and institutions who typically provide stability, such as advisers and student clubs, are now insecure themselves. Both students and parents find themselves succumbing to the pressures of the pandemic, particularly those who are front-line workers in the medical fields or working students who are losing their jobs, have their homes at risk or perceive an eviction looming. Stress relievers such as churches, mass sporting events and social gatherings are unavailable, uncertain or risky.
Adding to the complexity, between the election noise and social media fearmongering, people are making risky choices about how to respond to political uncertainty. Among those is the choice to purchase guns. In March, the second-busiest month for gun sales in history, people added more than three million guns to their personal arsenals. Forgotten is the fact that when “there’s a gun in the house, the chance of death by suicide more than triples.” Even without the suicide data, a lawyer comes with every bullet fired, which only compounds the stress. Additionally, uncertainty about the future, our jobs and our families continues to create anxiety. More children are now living with parents after college, and people are getting married older and having children later. Our society is changing.
“The Young Are at the Gates,” a phrase taken from a poem by Lavinia Dock during the women’s suffrage movement over 100 years ago, is apt today. Despite the challenging circumstances, young people remain fearless, hopeful and ready to embrace change. Today, their ethical foundations are tested or reinforced. They are learning important moral lessons: “take care of your neighbor” is one of them.
What impact might that have on our collective futures? Is the era of me thinking passing into one of us thinking? Our hope is that students are learning that personal choices and habits impact others. They are acquiring new communication patterns. At colleges and universities, they are learning to embrace people who are different from themselves, seeing them as wonders, not threats. Students are learning to embrace social media as a means of deep social connection rather than as a vehicle for popularity. They are banding together in support of widespread social justice reform.
Even during this time of immense stress and fear, student leaders are helping classmates to shut off negativity in favor of uplifting and mindful habits that will sustain them through this crisis and those in the future. For example, Armstrong Commons at my institution, Southern Methodist University, sponsors Serotonin Sundays, where students are encouraged to take care of themselves through a variety of activities, including taking a walk or playing an outside game. Other groups are working to make sure fellow students realize that there is joy in the new normal. They can still have food events that foster community, but the food is individually wrapped and served.
Our ethical standards are developed, not mandated. These are habits of mind and habits of heart. Whether through first-year orientation sessions, religious services, courses and lectures in theological or philosophical ethics, or student-to-student interactions, colleges and universities must engage in meaningful reflection and action.
For example, the Maguire Ethics Center at SMU just announced its first ethics contest with substantial prize money to encourage personal deliberation. Hampered by social distancing, religious groups are hosting outside worship, while social groups are conducting public service opportunities such as food drives and gathering supplies for homeless shelters.
Never has the role of student life offices on campus been so robust or so important. Rather than looking inward, they must produce models for students to encourage them look outward toward the things that will make life better. The discussion of principled responses to what’s happening in the world creates a situational awareness that will be a crucial foundation for the remainder of their lives. After all, our ethics will be displayed in the split-second decisions that we make in the uncertainty of the moment.
It’s time for us to recognize that the pandemic has forced choices on us. The way we treat and educate this generation must be a national priority. Educational institutions do not need a federal mandate do the right thing; they just need to focus on the people they serve, and beyond keeping students safe, they must gird them with a joy for living and steel to face the difficulties. No doubt, our lives have changed, our structures have changed and our priorities have changed. Yet our values can be our guiding force and we can emerge into a world we helped create that is better than the one behind us.
Yes, the young are at the gates.