Colleges must foster social, emotional growth

Last fall, I joined with a faculty colleague to teach a first-year class in bioethics. Early in the course, we talked with the students about the nature of moral reasoning. We explained that it involves rising above personal biases and prejudices and examining issues with an open mind, becoming informed about the facts of a case, and imagining what it feels like to be in another’s circumstances. In short, we asked students to be open-minded, informed, and empathetic.

First-year students, however, are at a developmental stage that makes them more likely to say, “I’ll tell you what ought to be done, and I don’t have to give you reasons because that is how I feel.”

It is hard for young people to make all the transitions we expect during their college years. First there is the transition to higher education. Then there is the choice of an area of study. After that, some will study abroad or do an off-campus internship and then experience the transition of re-entry to campus life. Finally, all will face the challenge of life after college. Each transition can set moral dilemnas, developmental changes, and intellectual challenges on a collision course. Rarely do we stop to think about what it takes to help students grow into adulthood.

The University of Vermont is among the many institutions that strive to create a clear educational philosophy, a distinctive campus culture, a coherent curriculum, and accomplished graduates. But too few of us remember that any good curricular reform should factor in social and emotional development as well as intellectual growth. We must design curricula to foster all three.

Research increasingly shows that few of us are just passive “receptacles” of knowledge. Regardless of our age, we create our own learning actively and uniquely. We do this by establishing and reworking patterns, relationships both within our understanding and in our communications with others.

The most eye-opening fact is that our students learn all the time — because of us and in spite of us. Moreover, they learn more than we might wish from the examples we set and very little from the policies we print in our student handbooks. If we in higher education wish for our students to be open-minded, informed, and empathetic, then we must behave this way ourselves. We must show them that good decisions require emotional depth as well as intellectual rigor.

The other day, I had lunch with a student who had recently returned from a semester abroad. He talked about how disoriented he felt when he returned to campus and how hard it had been to fit in. He said that he would have turned right around and gone back to Ghana if he hadn’t been able to plop down in a chair in the Billings Center and talk about how he felt with some other students and a member of our student affairs staff. The readjustment was accelerated when he visited his own high school to talk about his experience abroad. In teaching others, he made sense of his own experiences.

The lessons for all of us involved in higher education are clear. It is time to pay greater attention to emotional development and to recognize that young people don’t become instant adults when they enter college. A student once said to me, “I want to be known. I don’t just want to know!” As we plan a single class or plan a curriculum, or interact with students informally, we educators should think carefully about what such comments actually tell us. We are teaching people, not just subject matter, and in many ways we are setting an example of how a mature adult approaches learning. VQ

For the past year, President Judith Ramaley has written a column for Trusteeship, a journal for higher education leaders that is published by the Association of Governing Boards. A version of this essay originally appeared in that publication.