Friday, July 2, 2010

Baptism as Ritual: What’s the Analog in Higher Education?

I am moved to blog about baptism because I participated in one this weekend. As context, I confess that I am a thoroughly secular person and haven’t gotten this close to an altar since I was a child. But recently my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I were asked by a mother of a new baby, to become the child’s “godparents” and to participate in his baptism. This little boy, about six months old, had lost his father even before his birth, due to a plane crash which took the father’s life. Betsy and I are very fond of the child’s mother and so we gladly consented.

My self-concept is that I am a responsible adult but this request made me reflect why I had never been asked to serve in this capacity before-- maybe because this Christian custom is not all that common anymore, at least in my circle of personal acquaintanceship. Or maybe anyone who knew me well enough would assume my secular approach to life’s most important transitions would not permit me to assume such a role. I don’t know. But I am glad I agreed as I enjoyed the whole process: the rehearsal, the ceremony itself, the celebratory lunch to follow, and the realization of the importance of committing the whole village to raise the child.

Strange as this may appear, my mental thoughts standing there in front of the altar included:
1) my noting my respect for the importance of rituals to mark important life stage transitions;
2) my personal enjoyment of formalized rituals;
3) the role of ritual in binding people together in community;
4) raising the question about what, if anything, might serve as a counterpart to baptism for today’s students as they enter our colleges.

And so I reflect: what would it mean to “baptize” entering students? Well, of course, we wouldn’t want to use that decidedly Christian verb, particularly in governmentally supported institutions. Some related questions:

1. How do we formally celebrate the entry of the group’s new lifeblood, using ritual, song, reciting of creeds and important values, beliefs, candles, processions?
2. OK, so most of us don’t. But would it make a difference if we did?
3. How do we gather the receiving community together to welcome the new entrants and to pledge our support?
4. How do we designate “godparents” which I guess would be the equivalent of some kind of mentors who commit to invest in the development of the new member?
5. And for those of us who don’t do anything that might approximate any elements of the above mentioned kind of ritual, what informal actions do the students take to provide rituals for themselves because we aren’t meeting this basic human need for them? That’s right: all humans need and therefore create ritual, and have been doing so since the beginning of human kind. I hope your college or university has some kind of holy water to sprinkle on new students other than beer.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, June 28, 2010

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