Changing attitudes among students and faculty

Earlier this month, UCLA reported on their triennial survey of faculty attitudes and values, “The American College Teacher.”  (Here’s the study; here’s the writeup.  Quotations below are from the latter.)  The above-the-fold news from the study was that faculty are apparently interested in promoting personal change:

Compared to three years ago, faculty members were more likely to believe it is part of their job to “help students develop personal values” (66.1 percent, an increase of 15.3 percentage points over 2004–05), “enhance students’ self-understanding” (71.8 percent, a 13.4 percentage-point increase), “develop moral character” (70.2 percent, a 13.1 percentage-point increase) and “provide for students’ emotional development” (48.1 percent, a 12.9 percentage-point increase).

Some of these sound pretty . . . um . . . squicky.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t want anything to do with students’ emotional development, and I’m *certain* that I don’t have much to offer students by way of “develop[ing] moral character.”  I also have a hard time understanding how I could help students “develop personal values.”  (And, lest you think I’m just another misanthropic jackass . . . I teach in the FYE program.  I helped pilot learning communities program at my school.  [Ok, “misanthropic jackass” probably still fits, but student success means a lot.])  When people talk about the transformative power of education, they’re supposed to be referring to its self-transformative power.  As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalyis, the illusion that teaching too often leaves in place is the belief in the power of the teacher–which is a problem.

But it turns out that the same center at UCLA releases another study, “The American Freshman.” (Study; report.)  And there’s a question in this other survey that arguably speaks to the shifting faculty interest:

The survey also contains questions about students’ personal goals, often depicted in the report as a struggle between “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and “being well off financially.” During the counterculture years of the ’60s and ’70s, students often emphasized the importance of having a meaningful life philosophy, an interest that receded over the next two decades as financial concerns surged. In the last three years, students increasingly have said that both areas are important, a change that analysts attributed mainly to women’s rising interest in financial success.

Slightly more than half (51.4%) of current freshmen said it was important to develop a life philosophy and more than three-fourths (76.8%) said it was very important or essential to do well financially.

It would be interesting to introduce a question about helping students develop a life philosophy into the faculty survey.  I tend to read the answers quoted above as proxies for “life philosophy,” which makes sense: It’s not that faculty really want to build students’ moral character *directly*, which would be weird; rather, we know that an education in the liberal arts can help students embark on a program of self-transformation.

(I think Mark Bauerlein’s critics run past this point too often: That students today seem much less interested in self-transformation or self-improvement as a goal, at least according to all of these longitudinal measures. I don’t think it’s Twitter’s fault, but he has a point.)

My chair (yes, that’s right–my chair blogs!) was on this story a while ago,  which isn’t surprising since the two of us argued just this point in the local paper three years ago.  Faculty might be more interested in helping students change than they’ve ever been, but that can be understood as a defense of relatively traditional educational values against an increasingly pre-professional reduction of the undergraduate curriculum.

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