Cultivating character

Colleges are taking the teaching of ethics and morals more seriously.

Like hundreds of other freshmen at Pennsylvania State's University Park campus each fall, Brad Nestico arrived ready to study - and party - hard.

Soon he had joined a fraternity and was part of a drinking culture. About that time, though, Penn State was ramping up its anti-"binge-drinking" program: late-night movies, comedians, and dances.

But in a departure from schools with similar programs, Penn State homed in on an oft-touted, little-implemented ideal of American higher education: character.

The 1990s have seen increased focus on K-12 character development - especially in the wake of recent school shootings. But the "character" question has also been steadily creeping back into the less-likely arena of college life.

Recent student deaths from alcohol abuse, date rape, hazing, and cheating have college presidents increasingly looking to character education as a tool.

But the goal isn't an ethics discussion. By some estimates, 10,000 courses on applied ethics - business, nursing, accounting - are scattered across America's higher-education landscape. Yet only a few hundred of the nation's 4,000-plus colleges and universities - many of them small, religious liberal-arts schools - try to educate character across the curriculum.

"Higher education is rediscovering a mission it has had from the beginning," Elizabeth Hollander, director of Campus Compact, a national service-learning program at Brown University in Providence, R.I. That has translated into "educating the character of a new generation of students for the sake of our democracy, and not simply training them for work."

Since the 1960s, student demands for more control over their academic lives and court rulings led colleges and society to consider college-bound students adults and think of their education as "value neutral."

Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, says the tendency among large public universities, until the past five years, was to move away from character issues.

But that laissez faire attitude is breaking down. "What we're seeing now throughout the nation is people at universities like ours paying more attention than ever before to character issues," he says. "In meetings I've had with other presidents, it's much more of a topic now."

Arthur Schwartz, director of character development programs at the John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia, whose job is ferreting out colleges and universities that do a good job instructing on character issues, also says the pendulum is swinging back."

Mr. Spanier, Mr. Hollander, Mr. Schwartz and others point to signs of change:

*For the first time in memory, university presidents say, fellow presidents are talking about character and implementing programs focusing on "civic values" - what it means to be a good citizen - even if they are still tentative about delving into educating "personal moral values."

*"Service learning" that combines academic teaching with experience - often in volunteer-work that focuses on civic values - has exploded. Formal programs are in place on at least 620 campuses today, compared with 120 a decade ago, Hollander says.

*This fall, a new college guide by the John Templeton Foundation will profile 600 "colleges that encourage character development" in a dozen categories. The idea is to enable college-bound students and their parents to examine character-building at an institution alongside financial aid, academics, and other rankings.

*Research into character education and higher education is getting new attention by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Templeton, and other organizations.

*The increase in alcohol-and-substance abuse, date rape, cheating and other problems on campus is prompting authorities to look beyond traditional solutions toward programs that involve values education.

"Our challenge is greater today because students are coming to us from troubled backgrounds," says Dr. Spanier, explaining that an 18-year-old arriving on campus today may already be an experienced binge drinker, use drugs, come from a troubled home - and be in psychotherapy.

"We're seeing more and more that the universities have to look at the whole person," he says.

In doing so, American higher education is in many ways returning to its roots. At the turn of the century, there were fewer than 1,000 colleges and universities in America. Most institutions of the day boasted an "impressive arsenal of weapons for making men out of boys" that included religious revivals, dedicated but underpaid professors, and unheated dormitory rooms, according to Frederick Rudolph, professor of history at Williams College in Williams-town, Mass., and author of "American College and University: A History" (U of Georgia Press).

But the trump card was the senior "capstone" course on moral and intellectual philosophy that college presidents taught, much of it repackaged Christian orthodoxy, Dr. Rudolph writes.

That began to change with the rise of public-supported research universities in the mid-1800s. Character education slowly shifted to the back burner in this century, and by the late 1960s and early '70s it almost dropped off the academic radar screen. Court rulings and campus unrest resulted in the abandonment of in loco parentis - the role of the university acting in place of the parent in governing student life.

But now that character as a campus issue has resurfaced, the question remains: How to teach it in a pluralistic society?

"You have young people who don't like being preached at - and think they've gotten way from that by going to college, and you've got faculty concerned about proselytizing," says Jon Dalton, vice president of student affairs at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Character education is the kind of thing everyone wants to hear colleges are doing - but there's been an aversion to actually doing it."

Many institutions have bypassed such problems by defining character in terms most can agree on: leadership, honesty, respect for others, personal responsibility, says Dr. Dalton, who also directs the Institute on College Student Values at Florida State.

At Penn State, which made the new Templeton guide's "honor roll," character education is a concrete experience. All students must attend lectures that teach community values. But voluntary service-learning courses have also led 7,600 students to donate 264,000 hours of time to community service. Hundreds of students, including several hundred fraternity and sorority members, get involved each year in leadership-training programs.

Penn State also supports an active religious program via an on-campus chapel that caters to all denominations. Spanier sought $5 million in private donations to renovate the ecumenical Eisenhower Chapel at the heart of the University Park campus. Its services are often packed, and an expansion - funded by private donations - is in the planning.

Along the way, Spanier likes to toss new ideas for character education into the mix and see what sticks. At Penn State's huge University Park campus, character education is often conveyed in small ways that don't trigger the klaxon of imposed denominational values.

Spanier decided, for instance, to have daily newspapers placed in all residence halls. The idea: to produce an informed and educated citizenry. Students report they like the idea, read the papers, talk more to others about current issues, and feel more comfortable contributing in class.

"What happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside it," he says in an interview. Although he eschews any heavy-handed imposing of values, he thinks public universities can prod students to examine their own deeply held, often-ignored values. "The most fundamental challenge facing colleges and universities today is developing conscience, character, citizenship and social responsibility in their students," Spanier said in a recent speech.

Looking to character education as an antidote to binge drinking was another idea that popped out. The intent was never to condemn drinking as evil, since it is legal for 21-year-olds, Spanier says.

Under Spanier, Penn State has promoted a national program called "LeaderShape" to fraternity members. The idea is to create a venue for fraternity members to discuss their chapters' traditional values of brotherhood and leadership, and contrast those with the heavy drinking.

It made a difference to Brad Nestico. He and his brothers at Pi Kappa Alpha began discussing the fraternity's founding principles: ethical leadership, scholarship, philanthropy, and athletics -and the impact heavy drinking was having on them all.

About the same time, Mr. Nestico was examining his own values and was acutely aware of the gulf between the core values of his religion. Result: He rededicated himself to his faith and quit drinking.

It was a drastic step to some of his friends. But as Interfraternity Council president it helped him be a better role model, he says. His graduation this spring was sweeter, too, because he had plumbed his own character.

"I saw what I wanted and I went after it," he says. "It wasn't short-term gratification. It was more fulfilling in a deeper sense. I found a purpose for my life."


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