Restoring Community: Applying Communitarianism and the Moral Conversation to Student Affairs

Rachel L. Bauman

Borrowing on the major tenets of communitarianism, this argumentative essay explores how strengthening the university's moral voice and decreasing a focus on individual rights can restore a sense of community to the university environment. This essay includes a philosophical examination of the concept of community. Practical applications to the field of student affairs are presented through a discussion of how the principles of the moral conversation may be used to implement the communitarian perspective.

The current climate within higher education is characterized by division. Given disagreements surrounding the value and definition of multiculturalism, debates regarding the canon, infighting due to budget crises, and conflicting proposals to approach current demographic changes, it is not surprising a strong sense of community is often absent in today's colleges and universities. However, the need to instill in students a desire for community has been of central concern since the founding of higher education in America (Barber, 1992; Rudolph, 1962). The need is no less great today; for how can higher education succeed in teaching students what it means to be community members if it cannot create and maintain a community of its own?

Borrowing two major tenets of communitarianism, I wish to argue that strengthening the university's moral voice and decreasing a focus on individual rights may work to restore and nurture community within the university environment. Rather than determining a strict definition of what community should look like, I am concerned with restoring a sense of community-one characterized by respect, mutuality, and a commitment to something beyond individual self-interest. There can be no static definition of community; it is a fluid concept relative to each institutional environment.


Importance to the University

While this argument is primarily grounded in a communitarian perspective, it is important to acknowledge the value an individualistic approach can bring to higher education. Creating an environment conducive to the individual pursuit of excellence through the acquisition of knowledge and skills is clearly central to the academic mission. Furthermore, preserving an individual's right to develop critical thinking through free and unhindered inquiry is a characteristic deservedly celebrated in American colleges and universities (Griffin & Nash, 1990). Although the mission of higher education goes beyond transmission of content to include preparing students to be contributing members of a community, a community cannot exist without those individuals (Barber, 1992). The concern for restoring community to the university cannot emphasize collective human existence at the expense of individual human dignity. The communitarian perspective seeks to preserve individual liberty only to the extent that every individual understands and accepts his or her responsibility to the whole. In other words, a respect for self necessitates a respect for others; a claim of rights from the community carries a corresponding acceptance of responsibility to that community (Etzione, 1993).

Constitutive Community--A Model to Strive For

Michael Sandel (1982) explicates three conceptions of community-instrumental, sentimental, and constitutive-all of which are instructive in examining the university environment. In an instrumental community, an individual agrees to participate in collective life for the sole purpose of achieving personally desirable ends. A sentimental community is similar, except the personal ends achieved include an emotional component as the motivation to participate comes from feelings of love, happiness, friendship, etc.

Examples of instrumental and sentimental communities abound in the academy. On the whole, students recognize that in order to obtain a degree, they need to tend somewhat to community standards. Consequently, as the concept of instrumental community suggests, students are willing to learn with others in class and abide by academic and/or residential standards in order to graduate. Occasionally, there are students participating in the university community for more sentimental reasons, perhaps seeing college as a time to have fun, make friends, and find a partner.

The instrumental and sentimental communities are fine for what they provide: fulfillment of self-interest. But restoring a sense of community characterized by respect, participation, and mutuality requires a deeper commitment. Otherwise, existence of community would always be subject to individual desire. However, a constitutive community, Sandel's (1982) third conception, provides a model for higher education surpassing utilitarian individualism.

A constitutive community is more than a place to achieve personal ends-it is an environment where individuals can simultaneously find and create their identity. The constitutive conception of community is based on the assumption that humans are social beings and can only come to know themselves fully through their associations with others. In a constitutive community, an individual would find connection to the community "not a relationship they choose (as in voluntary association) but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity" (Sandel, 1982, p. 150). Without the community, individual identity would be much less complete, if it would exist at all.

The constitutive conception of community works well as a model for higher education. Motivation to participate would grow beyond simple achievement of personal ends, recognizing any kind of learning as a shared endeavor requiring continued commitment on the part of all community members. Barber (1992), concerned with our "stories" as individuals as well as the "story" we make together, argues that through discussing who we are, we come to know and understand ourselves and others better. Consequently, participation in a constitutive community has transformative possibilities not possible with more utilitarian approaches (Sandel, 1982).

It may be impossible to completely achieve a constitutive community within a university setting as institutions of higher education are generally large, relatively transient, and highly complex. It is possible, however, to increase the likelihood that students will acquire the skills and desire necessary for participation in this type of community when leaving the institution. One significant lesson taught by a constitutive university community experience is the value of a decreased focus upon individual rights.

Individual Rights and Personal Responsibility

The tension between an individual's claim to personal liberty and the community's need for collective responsibility has existed since our nation's inception. Consequently, it is not surprising this tension is expressed and experienced in the college and university environment as well. However, as difficult as this tension is to balance, "education can never merely be for the sake of individual self enhancement. It pulls us into the common world or it fails altogether" (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1991, p. 176). Instilling in students the desire to commit to something beyond themselves requires establishing structures teaching students to attend to each other's needs.

A first and essential tenet of communitarianism is that those closest to the "need" have primary responsibility for attending to that need. Second, if an individual student is unable to address his or her own need, the community of friends and neighbors is obligated to assist. The wider community of the university enters in if, and only if, those closer to the problem have not achieved a solution. This moral construct places the individual first but also emphasizes others' responsibility to assist. As the second level of responsibility falls to those who know and are close to the person, their involvement is more likely to mirror what the individual would choose for him or herself (Etzione, 1993).

This mode of operation has significant implications for student affairs. Services run by the university would be brought in only when the individual, or close community, requested assistance. This does not mean individual students, close friends, or the Resident Assistant (in the case of residential students) would take on counseling, health, or security roles. On the contrary, it becomes the responsibility of all community members to know their personal limitations, and campus resources in deciding when to ask for help. If individuals in the community are unable, or unwilling, to voice demands for changed behavior from their peers, then certainly the university can, and must, address the situation. This, however, should be a last resort and should be a sign to everyone that the community is in danger. "When a community reaches a point at which those responsibilities are largely enforced by powers of the state, it is in deep moral crisis" (Etzione, 1993, p. 266).

However, what if the close community around the individual agrees to a course of action harmful to self or others? Such a group can, in fact, be acting in support of one another and still not be enhancing the wider community. Therefore, concurrent to increasing a sense of responsibility is the need to strengthen the moral voice of individuals in the university environment.

Strengthening the Moral Voice

Higher education is, and always has been, replete with morals and values. Rather than attempting to deny the moral principles guiding our institutions, these principles should be the subject of frequent and open discussion, not simply to restore their strength but also to allow them to be critiqued and analyzed.

Guiding Principles-A Few Examples

It is not necessary to develop a definitive list of the precise moral principles meant to govern all colleges and universities. This would not be possible, nor desirable, given the distinct mission and nature of each institution. For the purpose of an example, assume an institution utilized just two moral principles in creating policies-honesty and respect; these principles would provide an excellent moral foundation for community.

For example, consider the claim that honesty should be upheld as a guiding principle. Ideas are our currency in higher education, and using ideas inspired or originated by others without giving proper credit is paramount to stealing (R. J. Nash, personal communication, March, 1995). If our institutions desire to be rooted in the pursuit of truth, dishonest acts (through misappropriation of others' ideas and works) cannot be tolerated. Additionally, entrusting society's future to individuals who have learned that dishonesty is tolerable, if it suits personal ends, is irresponsible at the very least (Oldenquist, 1986).

Similar to honesty, the importance of teaching students the virtue of respect goes beyond the bounds of higher education. Our society needs individuals who can have genuine interactions across and through all kinds of diversity. Engaging with others whose ideas, backgrounds, and beliefs diverge significantly from one's own will only be successful if one can approach an interaction with respect for the other.

How Principles Can Begin To Be Taught

Often moral principles guiding institutions are established as policy statements defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior, as well as the sanctions resulting from violating these standards. The responsibility for establishing, interpreting, and enforcing these policies and sanctions generally falls to institutional employees-from full-time professional staff to student resident assistants. A more communitarian perspective suggests the primary responsibility for establishing and upholding community standards lies with the community members themselves. Community members have the most knowledge about the needs of their community and have a right to choose by what standards it will be governed. Allowing and expecting students in a university community to create and uphold their own standards has two benefits. First, students may be more willing to follow behavioral guidelines they have had a voice in creating, and second, providing opportunity for students to use their moral voices develops and enlarges their "capacity for reasoned judgment and virtuous action" (Etzione, 1993, p. 254).

The benefit of a constitutive community is its provision of a behavioral guide representing a middle road between institutional imposition and relentless pursuit of self-interest. However, simply because principles have been agreed upon by the majority of the community does not ensure they will be beneficial for every individual (Mill, 1859). Individuals have a right to ask how moral principles come to be shared. What processes are set in place to ensure they are not just principles held by the dominant group? To say everyone has a voice in making decisions is to ignore that some have more power in a system than others. And what of those individuals who have moral principles not part of what is commonly shared? Can they expect these principles to be respected by the majority or must they conform to the dominant group in interest of a homogenous community?

For example, a moral principle such as celebration of diversity can be interpreted and applied in a myriad of ways. Should a Division of Student Affairs, espousing diversity as a fundamental principle, create hate speech codes as a way of communicating and enforcing that belief? Or, should the Division reject the notion of these codes on the grounds that celebration of diversity includes even abhorrent points of view? Even arguing that each individual community should work out their own understanding and application of those principles begs the question of how that "working out" is to occur. Certainly, it is through conflict a community can define its principles (Etzione, 1993). However, it is one thing to encourage students to use their moral voices in creating community, and another to teach students to develop and exercise that voice. Beyond the basic training in listening skills and introductory conflict-resolution provided for Resident Assistants and Peer Educators, what is done to teach students the skills and philosophy necessary to truly communicate with each other? If community standards including the needs of all students are to be created, students must learn how to engage in conversation. The following section presents a model for how this might happen.

The Moral Conversation

Robert Nash (1995) has developed a particular method for classroom interaction, which he labels the moral conversation, based on the principle that the manner in which ideas are expressed and exchanged is just as important as their content. The principles Nash proposes for in class conversation are just as useful for out of class interaction. This section will elucidate the most salient principles behind the moral conversation and indicate, through particular examples pertaining to student affairs, how the moral conversation may provide a helpful model for developing community in the university environment. According to Nash (1995), "a conversation that is moral . . . is one whose customs emphasize the fundamental worth and dignity of each participant in the exchange" (p. 2). Nash articulates several principles designed to facilitate this type of conversation in the classroom. One principle particularly helpful in applying the moral conversation outside the classroom is to "first, find the truth in what you oppose. Find the error in what you espouse. Then and only then declare the truth in what you espouse and the error in what you oppose" (p. 4). This tenet represents the core of the moral conversation and provides the focus for the following discussion.

The Truth in What You Oppose

Being willing to find truth in the opposing view is to accept, on faith, there is truth in another position, even if it is anathema to one's own. It is to believe every person holds some claim to the truth and, conversely, no one can claim all there is to know on any issue. Being expected to search for truth compels one to really listen to the other and see beyond political and ideological stereotypes which often lead to predetermined assumptions as to what will be heard. In short, to seek truth in the view of another is to recognize worth, not only in the view, but in the person proposing it as well.

In Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Charles Taylor (1992) argues that "due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need" (p. 26). To be recognized is to be allowed and encouraged to express what is unique and true about oneself. It is through talking with others about individual ideas that one can come to know self and form an identity. We "do not acquire the language needed for self definition on our own," but learn who we really are through conversations with others (Taylor, 1992, p. 32). If a student is shut out of a conversation because what they have to say is deemed controversial, trivial, or "politically incorrect" by another, he or she will be denied the opportunity to reach a more complete understanding of the issue. If this student's "truth" is never sought or is repeatedly shut out, his or her opportunity to develop an identity within that university community will be severely limited. If that student does not withdraw from the university, he or she will undoubtedly withdraw from the conversation.

The educational community should be appalled at the lost educational opportunity for that student. However, this should also raise significant concerns about the community as a whole. Fundamental to the mission of American higher education is the belief that truth can best be found, nurtured, and maintained by a free and unending exchange of ideas (Mill, 1859). If the pool of these ideas becomes smaller, because no one has struggled to find the truth in them, it stands to reason the type of truth discovered as a community will be smaller as well. Consequently, it is necessary to also find the error in what one espouses as true.

The Error in What You Espouse

Students are often taught to think in point-counterpoint fashion and to equate an admission of error with failure. The premise of the moral conversation, however, is to dispel the notion that interactions between people consist of a zero-sum game: someone "wins," and someone "loses." For a conversation to be moral, the purpose must be to reach a more complete understanding of the issue by articulating one's view while simultaneously attending to the view of another. If participants are interested only in showing how "learned" they are in a subject, or in practicing their debating skills, there can be no conversation.

Truly believing that one has the final word on the subject, is not conversing, but indoctrinating. If I know the whole story, then there are only two choices for others-they can either agree or disagree. Community cannot exist in this environment. Even if most people agree with the espoused point of view, this is not community but simply tyranny by the majority (Mill, 1859). Again, the heart of the academic mission is that the free exchange of ideas must be both given and received for personal and intellectual growth to occur.

Yet, what if a student or colleague truly does not believe he or she has anything to learn from others? What if he or she is not interested in playing by the rules of the moral conversation? Could one then say this individual has forfeited his or her right to participate in the conversation and institution? Such an action seems contrary to the responsibilities of educators. The opportunity to impact that student is lost, as well as the community's opportunity to learn from the student. Perhaps, trying to find the truth in the student's refusal to "play" may be a place to start. What is really going on there? Perhaps, he or she is merely being defensive because of feeling threatened or shut out.

Implications for Student Affairs

The use of this model could benefit all areas of student affairs. At judicial hearings, both accuser and accused could be required to articulate the error in their own side and the truth in the other before stating their case. Students involved could learn the principle that finding validity in the opposing view does not weaken their own. To the contrary: such a discovery makes it possible to maintain that even in light of good arguments for the other side, one still stands by one's position with assurance.

Certainly, at committee meetings of all kinds, the principles of the moral conversation would be beneficial. Imagine what benefit might result from the committee chair, after establishing consensus among his or her group, saying, "What is the error in our position? What truth are we not yet seeing?" This would require the group to consider diverse perspectives. Hopefully, the end result would be stronger, increasingly moral, decisions.

The principles of the moral conversation are relatively straightforward and, when employed, this method of communicating could effectively work to establish and renew a sense of community on campus. First, the requirement to fully attend to the "other" position naturally results in a decreased focus on individual rights. One cannot be sincerely engaged in finding the truth in an opposing view while simultaneously pursuing individual self-interest. And, once that truth is found, it stands to reason that one's individual view would adjust to incorporate that truth.

However, a community is more than a group of individuals exchanging ideas. As was mentioned, restoring a sense of community to the university environment involves the ability of the community to establish common moral principles in a participatory rather than dogmatic manner. By accepting responsibility to add their own perspective to the conversation, individuals (students) naturally become engaged in strengthening the moral voice of the community. Consequently, common moral principles will arise from within the community rather than be imposed from above. Additionally, the moral conversation itself teaches and reinforces moral principles. Because the purpose of the moral conversation is to arrive at a more complete understanding of "truth" through respectful interchange, there is no place in the moral conversation for dishonesty and disrespect.

Even though characterized by respectful dialogue, the moral conversation offers no guarantees that a highly charged exchange will result in consensus. Nash (1995) makes it clear that the moral conversation "carries with it no metaphysical guarantees that, in the end, reconciliation of conflicting views will occur or that ultimate synthesis will result" (p. 11). However, a unified consensus is not a necessary, nor perhaps even a desirable, component of a community characterized by respect, mutuality, and commitment beyond self-interest. This type of community, the constitutive community, is measured not by agreement but by mutuality: the individual and the community are defined by and through open interaction. It is through "conversation" with others that we create community and come to know and understand ourselves.


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Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college and university: A history. (J. R. Thelin, Ed.). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. (Original work published in 1962)

Sandel, M. J. (1982). Liberalism and the limit of justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1992). Multiculturalism and "the politics of recognition". Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rachel is a 1995 graduate of the UVM HESA program. Presently she is the Leadership Coordinator for the Living/Learning Center at the University of Vermont.