A Compass For College

The fall exodus of college-bound offspring is bound to prompt mixed emotions in parents. Sure, you may not miss your child's "music," or listening for car wheels at 11 p.m., midnight, 1 a.m. But then it's: "You're leaving? So soon?"

And you wonder: Will he be entirely on his own? Will he get much guidance?

A decade or two ago, parents had good reason to wonder, at least at many schools that took a strictly hands-off approach to character issues. But at a growing number of institutions, these questions are much on the minds of educators concerned about everything from binge drinking to students' spiritual interests to reenrollment rates after freshman year.

Much of the impetus for a stronger personal as well as academic compass comes from students. Religious groups have burgeoned. Counseling services are in greater demand. Applications at many evangelical schools, where moral standards are typically more firmly defined - and those who adhere to them aren't laughed at - are up significantly, The New York Times reports.

The majority of schools aren't talking a return to the days of in loco parentis. No curfews and dress codes, no lists of dos and don'ts. Instead, at places like Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., for example, freshman orientation includes introduction to a year-long theme of ethical and moral responsibilities. The school credits the program, started several years ago, with increases in enrollment and student retention.

So when date rape and pep talks on values crop up at orientations around the United States, is it a positive sign that the age is moving beyond "anything goes"? Edwin Delattre, dean of the school of education at Boston University, says he sees a "significant number of students who don't expect to have to live with pressure to use drugs, binge drink, or be treated as if they were foolish if they don't intend to be sexually active." But, he argues, few schools tackle the fundamentals of moral life, opting instead to emphasize tolerance and sincerity - never arguing that some actions might be intolerable, or that tyrannical behavior can originate from very sincere people.

Discussions of moral matters that skate along the surface of tough questions are easy enough to have. But what's interesting is that much of the pressure for such exchange is coming from students - typically a skeptical crowd, sensitive to glibness. At orientation and beyond, they should keep up the pressure for a substantive response.

* Send comments to Amelia Newcomb, Learning editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail: newcomba@csps.com

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