origin story / culture

Have Elite US Colleges Lost Their Moral Purpose Altogether?

The ethical formation of citizens was once at the heart of the US elite college. Has this moral purpose gone altogether?
Stories about colleges coddling students with lazy rivers, climbing walls and buffets provoke ire but fail to convey the richness and scale of extracurricular life. Students at places such as Middlebury, Yale and the University of Virginia spend more time participating in clubs, fraternities or sororities and athletics than they do in class or studying. At Virginia, students lead more than 800 clubs and groups, most with weekly meetings and events, from the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society to the Quidditch team; they volunteer hundreds of thousands of hours every year for local, national and international groups; they participate in collegiate sports, practising and training often 20 hours per week; and they participate in arts programmes, from small writing groups to internationally recognised orchestras. 

Students are primarily formed outside of classrooms and apart from their professors. And it’s this institutional separation that is central to understanding contemporary American college campuses. 
As universities experimented with various curriculum reform efforts in the first half of the 20th century, they simultaneously reasserted their control over student life by introducing new institutional programmes and structures almost entirely independent of the curriculum. Most of these extracurricular initiatives sought to instil moral character and a sense of common purpose. What happened in the classroom was about knowledge. What happened outside was about life and, however fragmented, morality.

Universities built dormitories, student unions, undergraduate libraries and residential colleges. The famed residential college systems at Harvard and Yale were not established until the late 1920s, with the first seven Yale colleges opening in 1933. Universities also established offices of student life and advice, offered counselling, and invested heavily in well-organised college sports.

Although American college students had been playing football for decades, it wasn’t until the second decade of the 20th century that universities constructed big stadiums and hired professional coaching staffs and athletic directors. They transformed collegiate athletics into ritual. Loyalty and love for one’s alma mater could be cultivated through the traditions of football games. The liturgical habits of the Protestant college were reinvented. The cadences of compulsory chapel gave way to stadium chants; the college professor ceded his moral standing to the football coach.

When universities shifted moral education out of their curricula and into to the realm of extracurriculars, they relieved faculty members of responsibility for the ethical formation of their students. And they generally did so with the consent of faculty members, grateful for the time to focus on other administrative obligations or their research. Professional administrative staff gradually took on the responsibility of character and moral education. 
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