John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Optimism: How are we going to teach it this year?

September 9, 2010John N. GardnerInsights0

One of the ways I try to live my mental life is to avoid letting commercials register on my consciousness. To achieve this aspiration it means I watch absolutely no commercial television; try not to read billboards and ignore print ads. Admittedly, it is very hard to ignore these damn things.

Today, I failed while in an airport. I noticed a billboard featuring Michael J. Foxx which communicated his courageous optimism that Parkinson’s can be beaten. For some reason this led me to think about levels of optimism in this year’s crop of new college students.

Perhaps I made this association because I have heard several anecdotal reports over the past few days of declines in community college enrollments this fall. These may be a mere blip of an exception to the pattern we have been seeing. But what has particularly caught my attention is the hypothesis being offered that students are so pessimistic about the economy that they simply don’t see the value of starting college because they do not believe there will be jobs for them if and when they finish. So why take on all the debt and work?

Optimism, of course, is an essential part of the American ethos. It is fundamental to who we think we are. This makes me wonder this year, who is going to be more or less optimistic and what are the behavior patterns that college students are going to exhibit towards the growing sense of pessimism about “the new normal?”

At the risk of great oversimplification, I predict that the female students are going to work even harder, take even greater advantage of optional opportunities that colleges offer than they have been doing—all in contrast to male students. And, as for the them, I predict that we will see far more hedonistic behaviors—and to evoke that wonderful metaphor that Art Levine used several decades ago in his book When Dreams and Heroes Died: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, the image of college students partying on the deck of the Titanic.

So if we wanted to encourage or students this year of all years, to take more advantage of all the opportunities that college still holds out for the, how would we do that?

I have observed enough campus cultures to know that some have the culture of learned optimism, and some the opposite, learned helplessness. While I find that financial resources are related in some respects they are in no ways determinative.

Of course, it all starts with the attitudes of campus leaders. How can we project optimism and still be realistic and pragmatic? And it has to do with institutionalized core values that are public, prominent, and intentionally taught. Rituals matter too, rituals that inculcate students to consider lives of purpose and meaning that transcend their own individual measures of success. But where this optimism can be most directly taught is in the learning interaction settings where faculty and staff interact with students. This all comes down to you, me, us. And this year, we are needed more than ever.

-John N. Gardner

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