Sunday, February 5, 2012

Getting it Together for College

Last week I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days with four college presidents in conversations that were far ranging, deeply thoughtful, and a bit disconcerting. A central theme focused on the developmental continuum of adolescence to adulthood, and all of us shared a deep concern that as we consider offering greater freedom and independence to young people, brain research indicates that the centers of mature judgment might actually develop later than previously thought. This gap is most evident in the college years - a tricky, complicated, and both expansive and expensive time for quasi-adult children. While offering extraordinary academic curricula, college life seems less sure-footed when it comes to the development of character, judgment, and ethical consistency.

One president reflected on the fragmented and disjointed nature of form and function in college life. College students often attach discrete and different meaning and associated behaviors to what they do in the dorm, in the dining hall, in the gym, in the library, and in the fraternity or sorority house. The same student can take on very different attitudes, dispositions, and associations as he or she moves between the disconnected spheres of college life. This is exacerbated by the transient nature of electronic social networking - an increasingly influential part of college life - and the distinct lack of an adult presence from late afternoon through bedtime, often the most active and influential hours of the day. This also has become an even longer stretch of time as many students regularly stay up until 2 or 3 AM.

While some colleges have developed house systems with professors in residence to help provide guidance, few adults are well-matched to the diurnal rhythms of college students. Some Resident Advisor programs are successful, and some colleges are hiring mature students as agents to curb excessive behaviors -- not through enforcement, but rather through positive role modeling and counseling. That said, there was some agreement that colleges are generally not well-designed to strengthen and improve maturity of character.

This places an additional burden on college prep programs. Beyond making sure that students can think critically, communicate persuasively, write coherently, and compute accurately, we must encourage strong, formative, and engaging relationships with adults so students naturally and routinely seek out adults as guides and mentors. We must help students to internalize habits of consistent, principled behavior as a binding element of all activity. And, finally, we must develop in each student a refined capacity for pro-active self-assessment linked to an appreciation for what constitutes a life of meaning and purpose.

I am glad that we have extraordinary faculty and that our community reinforces habits of character as much as habits of mind at Kent Denver. And while I believe that we can do more, I am reassured that as our students prepare to lead Ethics Day seminars for the entire school, and as each student thoughtfully reflects on his or her yearly “This I Believe” essay, we are headed in the right direction.