Student Affairs Professionals as Character Educators

An interesting comment was made today at the Boston Confab – a discussion group for people in or preparing to enter Student Affairs. One of the presenters said the following (paraphrasing): “Our job as administrators is not to educate – it is to create an environment conducive to education.” This was an unsettling comment to me as the reason I find myself entering into Student Affairs is that I feel professionals in this environment are in a unique position to educate in a way that faculty cannot.

The presenter actually gave a great presentation, so this is not to say that his statement is without merit. A product of the baby boomer generation that asserted its rights and individuality in the face of incredible adversity, it is not surprising that he resists the concept of in loco parentis as anathema to the academy. After all, it was against the prescriptive moral codes of authoritarian administrators that the students railed a few decades ago. By no means is that what I think we ought turn back to – but that does not mean that in loco parentis is necessarily bad, either. Because what it means to be a parent has also changed.

What I see in my experience is higher education is the pendulum swinging from prescriptive moral codes to an amoral, value-neutral educational experience. I wonder if this is not equally harmful? I think back to the motto of my undergraduate institution, one of whose core tenets was virtue. Is it not the obligation of the University to teach virtue? This is something that is likely to be a controversial idea; the typical reaction is – “who are you to teach me virtue?” Are we so morally perfect that we can tell others how they ought to be? And here is where I say decidedly no.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about it. That doesn’t mean we don’t have conversations about what it means to be a good person. I find myself speaking with residents of my building, other RAs, and professional staff about what it means to be truly good. They don’t always agree with me. I don’t always agree with them. But sometimes I do, and I just never thought about it before. This is the beauty of it. People can come to realize that some of the values that they hold dearest have not been their own, but have been inherited through cultural norms and familial traditions. I’m of the firm belief that if we don’t challenge our own values – every day if possible – that we don’t really own those values. Our morals ought to stand up to the scrutiny of critical thought.

This is what I See as the mission of the Academy. It is not only in the faculty – but in the neighbors of your residence halls, your friends in your extracurriculars, your experiences abroad – that you find the diverse backgrounds that can lead to a well-examined life. It is with others as our mirrors, proudly reflecting our strengths and our flaws that we grow. The role of the Student Affairs administrator is to facilitate that, but to also engage that – because our students have much to learn from our experience, and we have much to learn from theirs.

Challenging people to change the way they think – that is education. B.F. Skinner said that “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Albert Einstein, likewise, said that “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” Why is it that we say that “everything I needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten?” – it is in the character education and moral development of students that makes that quote seem so salient. It also the arena in which Student Affairs practitioners can find their niche as educators.

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