John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Irrational Love…Or is It Rational?

November 19, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner
President

A few weeks ago I visited my alma mater, Marietta College, on a professional trip in association with a project I am working on with faculty, staff and administrators there. There is no way I can fully describe how much I love that place, that institution and the people I knew there—most of them now gone. If more students felt the way I do in that regard, we would have much less of a retention problem.

Generally, I regard love as an irrational phenomenon. But my alma mater did so much to develop me, support me, nourish me, care for me, focus me, that it almost seems rational that I love the place. If not “rational” well certainly “understandable”, “appropriate.”

By the time I had been to college, graduate school and then in the military, I had come to realize experientially that as a human being, I could be taught to think, feel, and do anything, including hate, kill, and/or love.

Then I came to work for the University of South Carolina. We had this President with this heretical idea that we could teach the students to “love” the University. And if they came to love it they wouldn’t want to trash it and there would be no more student riots like the one that had barricaded him in his office and set his building on fire in May of 1970. So he and a group including myself, started a course, University 101, to teach students to love the University. And 43 years later there have been no more riots. And many of the students really do love the University.

So four decades later, most institutions are doing much more to intentionally teach their incoming students a wide variety of skills, knowledge, attitudes, about making a successful transition into college. A few places I think are actually trying to teach the students to love the institution, its people and opportunities. I know that is still the case at USC. The big question is how might we do this.

Well, for starters, we could identify everything that successful college students do and we could set out to teach students how to do those things.

And we could put all that content and process into a credit bearing course.

And we could introduce new students to faculty, staff, and fellow students who love the institution. And get new students to spend quality and quantity time with such people, each week, as in three contact hours in class at the very least.

And we could get new students engaged in experiences out of class that they would enjoy and which would model enthusiasm for the college experience (attending events, plays, concerts, activities).

And we could make sure that they had professionals to interact with that cared about them, listened to them, encouraged them, and in a few special cases even came to love them.

Yes, I think this is what we need to be doing: teaching new students to love the institution, to love being there, experiencing the transformation that can take place in such a unique environment.

So why do I love my alma mater?

Well, for one thing, it is in a beautiful setting, in the bucolic (I would like to think overlooking some downsides) Appalachian region of southern Ohio. It sits at the confluence of two beautiful rivers: the Ohio and the Muskingum. The small host town of Marietta, has 15,000 or so citizens and is steeped rich in history, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory, created by act of Congress in 1787. Its streets are made from brick pavers. In the fall it is particularly beautiful and evocative of the powerful feelings I had when I first began there, as a lonely, depressed, homesick, undecided, seventeen year old college student.

So why do I love my alma mater?

Because that is where I discovered that I had a set of competencies that would carry me through life.

That is where I learned to work with peers in groups and came to appreciate them and enjoy professional work.

That is where I came to understand how higher education institutions really work, which has been the focus of my life’s work.

That is where I came to understand so much more about how the world works; how I can think like a liberal arts person and integrate many bodies of knowledge.

That is where I developed a number of special relationships, overwhelmingly with men,  that have endured through now almost five decades of adulthood.

That is where I learned to overcome my acquired sexist thinking and experience my opposite gender as full human beings just like myself.

That is where I developed my adult work habits.

That is where I experienced the powerful interconnection of a healthy mind and a healthy body by realizing the benefits of rigorous, disciplined, regular, outdoor, physical exercise.

That is where I overcame many of my prejudices learned at home.

That is where I developed my own aspirations rather than those my parents had for me.

That is where I learned that the questions are often more important than the answers.

That is where I learned my lifetime value systems about politics, religion, social justice and so much more.

That is where I became intellectually liberated.

That is where I first saw that I could have an impact on a human organization through my own unique vision, energy, interpersonal and communication skills.

That is where I learned—or began to learn, about how to go about effecting change in the higher education environment.

That is where I experienced what first-year college students, and seniors, needed for successful transitions.

So especially when I return to this hallowed place I am reminded how much I love this institution and for what it stands. It would be irrational for me not to love this college.

This love is powerful.

It is mystical.

It is magical.

It is beyond complete definition or understanding.

It is to be experienced, felt, lived, and acted upon.

I persisted, was retained, in spite of a terrible first term, because I came to love the place and what it was doing for me, its people, its place, its transformative power.

Your students can experience this love too. But you have to be an agent for that.

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