Character on campus, and afterward

Duke University has long run a campus program to support students in moral reflection and in developing personal integrity. But this type of education - so essential later in the workplace - remains notably absent in most schools of higher learning.

Academics, of course, are the core reason for college or university. Duke, for one, doesn't neglect that side of learning. And yet, according to a new survey, more than half of all faculty in higher ed say it's important that undergraduates develop moral character and enhance their self- understanding.

The survey, conducted among 421 institutions by an ongoing project at the University of California at Los Angeles, reveals a big disconnect between teachers and students that may explain why so few schools of higher education spend much effort on character education.

Connecting moral reasoning to spiritual values is often essential in character education. And students don't shy away from telling pollsters that they want spiritual help and growth in higher ed. But their professors remain shy about giving them that. Less than a third of professors say colleges should facilitate a student's spiritual development, while a similar survey of students found nearly half say it is important that colleges encourage their personal expression of spirituality.

Discussing religion or spirituality in the classroom is indeed difficult for teachers. And yet they also know that preparing students to act morally in their chosen profession is especially critical to their career success, not to mention society at large.

The survey did find that a majority of faculty believe their own spirituality does have a role to play on campus, and 3 in 5 do consider themselves to be religious people.

But a big majority of students say their professors never encourage discussions of spirituality or religion or provide opportunities to discuss the meaning or purpose of life.

"It would appear that there is much more that colleges can do to facilitate students' spiritual development," says Alexander Astin at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which conducted the survey.

Colleges need not resort to proselytizing, but schools such as Duke have found they can have more than honor codes or elective courses in ethics. A student's spiritual growth can be supported by such activities as writing self- reflective essays or in community service related to their studies. Many colleges are introducing "service learning," or community work that allows students to experience the ethical or moral dilemmas that they will face in their careers.

An influential education think tank, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Stanford, Calif., has a project to look at how professional schools, from medicine to law, teach practical, moral reasoning. It found undergraduates are inspired by moral ideals but need help in working toward them. Only a few institutions integrate such learning in campus life, such as finding "teachable moments" that expand a student's heart for qualities such as compassion and integrity.

Higher ed needs to break this barrier between professors and students that keeps them from talking about an essential in real education.

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