Motivating and Equipping Students to Make a Difference

Sea ViewEarlier in the summer, after reading the first two chapters of Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is and Should Be, I wondered if Delbanco’s vision for liberal education (“college”) included the preparation of students to solve the tough problems facing our society. It was clear that Delbanco sees great value in helping students encounter the past as a way to better understand the world and their place in it. But it wasn’t clear that he sees college as a place to equip students to make that world a better place. Having finished the book last night, I’m happy to report that Delbanco does see this as a critical role of a college education, although he doesn’t offer much in the way of suggestions for making it happen.

In a comment here on the blog, Columbia University student Matthew Sheridan argues eloquently that exploring the past (through humanities courses) can help students better understand the human condition and thus motivate them to make a positive difference in the world. Certainly, if students are going to engage in the kind of civic work that Delbanco values, those students will need to be motivated to look beyond their own interests. And, as Matthew points out, digging into the “Great Books” can foster that motivation in students. Delbanco agrees, arguing that the humanities “provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had a special urgency for young people” (p. 99).

I don’t disagree with this argument, although I’ll point out that not every course in the humanities is taught in such a way as to encourage students to grapple with important questions. Some courses, by design or by accident, do very little to foster this kind of self-reflective, critical thinking. What worries me more about Delbanco’s argument is that he largely ignores other kinds of experiences that motivate students to make the world a better place and, worse, outright denies that the sciences can foster this kind of questioning of one’s place in the world.

“Science,” Delbanco writes, “tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility. It not only fails to answer such questions; it cannot ask them” (p. 99). I wonder how many scientists Delbanco has talked to about such things. I know many scientists who think very deeply about such questions because their understanding of the natural world compels them to do so. Psychologists whose understanding of how the brain works generates in them compassion for those facing mental illness. Biologists whose knowledge of the ways our bodies stop working over time helps them face their own mortality. Physicists whose analysis of data from distant stars and galaxies forces them to confront humanity’s place in the cosmos. Environmental scientists whose research motivates them to speak out about our responsibility to the planet and future generations. The humanities don’t have a lock on helping people look beyond themselves.

Delbanco spends most of his fifth chapter looking for signs that today’s colleges help students take on the mantle of “the duty of the citizen to the community” (p. 132, quoting Endicott Peabody). Colleges come up short in Delbanco’s survey, thanks to the sense of entitlement they breed in their students, thanks to their ties to “the world of money” (p. 140), thanks to their focus on creature comforts for student, and thanks to the lines they cross in supporting athletic programs. In keeping with his interest in the past, Delbanco points out many times how colleges have always had these problems, but that they seem to be worse today. He writes that today’s students, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, suffer from “a sense of drift,” not sure “how to make a life.” Delbanco continues:

“Unfortunately, by failing to reconnect their students to the idea that good fortune confers a responsibility to live generously toward the less fortunate, too many colleges are doing too little to help students cope with this siege of uncertainty” (p. 148).

This is a thesis worth considering, but I don’t think Delbanco argues it well. By focusing on all that’s wrong with colleges today and largely omitting any mention of the good, he does a disservice to colleges that are, indeed, helping students find meaning in their lives by serving others. I’m glad I read to the very end of the book, because it isn’t until the second-to-last page that Delbanco mentions service-learning, although not by name. He writes, “‘Community service’ organizations have long been a feature of most colleges, but explicit connection of coursework with service work is relatively new, and growing” (p. 175). I think he could have mentioned this earlier! And perhaps included a survey of service-learning initiatives in his fifth chapter. Campus Compact. The American Association of Community Colleges. Stanford University. Brown University. Ohio State University. And Berea College! Why not revisit Berea College (mentioned briefly on page 122) in this chapter on the service mission of colleges?

Service-learning is far from universal at colleges and universities, of course. Perhaps “relatively new, and growing” is an accurate description of this movement. But for a book promising to describe what college “is” and “should be,” I think a fuller treatment of service-learning, along with other extracurricular and co-curricular initiatives aimed at fostering service and citizenship, would be appropriate.

Let me end this blog post by returning to the question of motivation and to that second-to-last page in Delbanco’s book. He writes:

“Much of the impetus for such work [service-learning] comes from the students themselves, who, despite everything I have said about the problems and pathologies of contemporary college culture, are often brimming with ideals and energy and hope, and have a craving for meaningful work” (p. 175).

Reading this reminded me of the “Students as Producers” theme at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching this year. From my blog post introducing this theme:

“Students, particularly undergraduates, are often seen as ‘consumers’ of knowledge, memorizing information delivered to them by professors during class and then simply repeating it back on exams and essays.  But we know that they can be ‘producers’ of knowledge, as well, capable of generating meaningful, creative work, even within the confines of a semester-long course.”

Many faculty, including those who teach in the humanities and those who teach in the sciences, including those who engage in service-learning and those who don’t, recognize that their students “have a craving for meaningful work” and design courses that provide students opportunities to engage in such work. Many of our students bring with them to college all the motivation they need to make the world a better place. Let’s build courses that tap into that motivation and prepare students to solve tough problems, create new knowledge, and build organizations and technologies that make a difference.

Image: “Sea View,” Martin Fisch, Flickr (CC)

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