John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Could We Develop a Curriculum to Teach This?

As I am sure all my readers do, I have a summer early morning ritual. It is to eat breakfast on the deck of my mountain top home in western North Carolina and listen to NPR, and be inspired to think great thoughts as I take in the spectacular views.

On the morning of June 21, during this ritual I heard a report about a Connecticut third generation restaurant proprietor, whose family operate a pizzeria, and had been pursuing the practice for generations of having the family’s children work in the business. It seems that recently they received word from the State of Connecticut authorities that they had to cease and desist the practice of providing character building experiences for their kids by having them work in the family business.

I was very touched by this report overall, and especially the father of the family telling the NPR interviewer that “…I learned more from working in the family business about the importance of family, respect, integrity, and hard work, than I could have in any college or university.” Well, that really captured my attention and imagination.

So what if we set out in college to teach “the importance of family, respect, integrity and hard work”– could we do that intentionally if we aspired to? And, if so, how?

In practicing my ever constant mental life where the questions are almost always more important than the answers, I recalled that as a young man I learned that if properly taught, we human beings can be taught just about anything. I learned this when I was in US Air Force basic and officer training. My drill sergeant would say such things as: “Expletive deleted, listen here! Do you want to survive Vietnam?” And the only acceptable answer, in unison, was “Yes Sir.” He would then go on to recite his mantra: “There are three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Air Force Way. And I am gonna tell you what I am gonna learn ya’; and then I am gonna learn ya’; and then I am gonna tell ya’ what I learned ya’!”

A few years later, after surviving the Air Force and coming to the University of South Carolina, joining the faculty, and getting involved in the training for University 101, our innovative first-year seminar course, and then becoming the director of University 101, I came to the realization that I was an academic version of my drill sergeant. My job was to teach them to survive, and to do so by teaching them the “Carolina Way.”

This made me acutely aware that we could teach our entering students anything we wanted. The key was to be intentional about what is it is we want to teach our students.

And so, yes, I believe we could have a college experience where we taught the importance of “family, respect, integrity, and hard work.”

Alas, there is no evidence that college graduates have any more integrity and honesty than non college educated citizens. But I still believe that we could teach these outcomes.

I was inspired to teach this by a research project that was led by my wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, back in 2002 and in which I participated. This was an effort by our non-profit organization to identify so-called “institutions of excellence in the first college year” and to disseminate our findings. One of the institutions we discovered and honored was the US Military Academy at West Point. And there to my respectful surprise, we learned that the overarching desired outcome of its curriculum was “responsibility” and therefore that’s what they taught. So, naturally I wanted to learn more about how they did so. And the Academy’s personnel were ready, willing, and able to teach me how they do this. So I have become a believer. Here’s one way they do this: every new student (a plebe) is assigned an upper class student as a mentor. And if the plebe breaks a rule, does not perform up to expectations, then the fundamental question becomes: who is responsible? Answer: the plebe AND the upper class mentor! Just imagine if we tried to put a system like that in place in our laissez-faire civilian campus cultures!

But, to wit: I believe we could teach the importance of family, respect, integrity, and the value of hard work. We could teach students anything we might want them to learn. So, what are we waiting for besides deciding on what we really want students most to learn?

-John N. Gardner

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