John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

We Have Failed This Generation

John N. Gardner

President

 
 At each of the conferences I attend each year that are sponsored by the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, my favorite session is one we offer at every event: “Spirituality, Authenticity, and Wholeness”. We have been doing this since 1998 and were inspired to do so by Sandy and Lean Astin, Laura Rendon, and Art Chickering who facilitated a similar session we first attended to see this process in action. I just attended the 24th Annual International Conference on the First-Year Experience and in this particular session a Japanese higher educator made this statement: “We have failed this generation”.
“We have failed this generation.” I immediately wanted to confirm my assumptions about what she meant, but also to push this notion as far as I could in my own thinking about my own country’s higher education culture.
My Japanese colleague was referring to the recent man made damage and trauma caused after the natural tragedy of the tsunami when it soon became apparent that the much longer term disaster was one caused by the melt down of an electric power plant. How could this have happened in an era when science, engineering, and corporate cultures have triumphed in so many ways over nature. Well, the more we are learning the more it appears that WE caused this disaster:

  • We should not have allowed such a plant to have been built so close to the coast
  •  
  • We should not have permitted the collusion of government regulators and corporate managers who looked the other way about breaches in operational security, partly out of concerns for the corporate bottom line but also out of our supreme modern man confidence that we can manage such technologies at a very low level of risk and an accompanying high tolerance for a public that is kept deliberately unaware. Yes, we were smart enough to have known better. We had the technological capacity to have prevented this but not the moral and ethical integrity, courage, values, to prevent it. And, hence, we have failed this generation.

I can think of all kinds of examples in my own country where we have not used the moral reasoning, the ethical integrity to have prevented many human misfortunes which we have the intellectual knowledge to prevent or alleviate.

 

But her question got me to thinking as I often to about the fundamental assertion behind my work of the last 12 years when I have been leading a non-profit organization whose goal is to get colleges and universities to take more responsibility for student learning (that was the mantra of the senior higher education program officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts, Russell Edgerton, who awarded us our first grant to initiate our particular version of this larger line of reform work in American higher education.

So, my thinking went, if we  were to truly take more responsibility for student learning, how should we be serving this generation, particularly so as not to fail them. What can we be doing in our great colleges and universities to insure that there are no technologically caused disasters like we have just seen in Japan? What can we do to produce a more different kind of business executive, broker, financier, who will use their college taught talents in ways that are different from those that just caused our own financial tsunmi? I could go on.

I keep asking different versions of her question:
  • Have we failed this generation?
  • How well are we serving this generation?
  • What is it we need to help them to save themselves from?
  • What would it mean to save a generation?
  • What does it mean to fail a generation?
  • When we act responsibly in our institutions, just what are our responsibilities to this generation? How far do they extend?
  • How do we talk about this? 
  • Are we talking about it?

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