Five Shifts We Must Make, According to Harvard

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Why does our current culture motivate students toward personal success rather than community success? What can we do about it?

The Harvard Graduate School of Education just released a report, performed in collaboration with dozens of educators across the nation, called, “Making Caring Common.” Its concern was the current culture among students toward selfishness and personal success, instead of community success and the common good.

Evidently, selfish ambition at the expense of the community has gone viral.

In the words of the MCC executive summary, “As a rite of passage for many students and a major focus for many parents, the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves. Yet high school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities…The messages that colleges do send about concern for others are commonly drowned out by the power and frequency of messages from parents and the larger culture emphasizing individual achievement.”

Due to the societal pressure to expect special perks, the report encourages students and their parents to focus on cultivating empathy for others, especially those from ethnically diverse backgrounds. When you think about it, entitlement and empathy are polar opposite paradigms, the first being about “me” and what I deserve; the second being about the rights and feelings of others. The admissions process should both clearly signal that concern for others and the common good are highly valued in admissions and describe what kinds of service, contributions and engagement are most likely to lead to responsible work, caring relationships and ethical citizenship.

Five Observations I Made About the Shifts the Harvard Report Recommends:

1. Public citizenship instead of personal expansion.

The report encouraged ongoing, meaningful community service instead of simply building a resume. “Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile, exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places that have little meaning to them, but it appears to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. The admission process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether the service occurred locally or in some distant place…but whether the students immersed themselves in an experience, and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.”

2. Principled ethics instead of pragmatic ethics.

The Harvard report recognized that society has unwittingly produced a generation of children who make decisions based on pragmatism, not principles. It’s something I’ve been writing about for years. In their effort to “get ahead” kids feel pushed to do whatever it takes, which leads to very sketchy ethics, based on personal gain—not right and wrong. It leads to both cheating on tests and exaggerating on resumes, and it can lead students to perceive themselves as victims—in a “me vs. them” world. Both the college and parent must be intentional about prioritizing personal responsibility as much as personal rights. Hmm. What a novel thought.

3. Perpetual engagement—not just project engagement.

Many kids today have been encouraged to do community service. Unfortunately, it’s become a mere “project” to be checked off a list, and placed on a resume. The report states that colleges should send the message to students and parents that “not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income are highly valued in the admissions process.” Wow. This sounds like my grandparents’ vocabulary.

4. Quality over quantity of outside activities.

Today’s parents (and children) have been pushed to involve their children in dozens of activities every school year, sometimes just to keep up with the neighbors or their classmates. The report suggested we emphasize no more than two or three extra-curricular activities in a teen’s school year, prioritizing quality over quantity. If the activity on the transcript is one of many, it sends the message the applicant is scattered, and simply loading up their record for the sake of image or appearance.

5. A Proper College more than a Prestigious College.

For decades, there has been a growing pressure for parents to send their graduate to a pristine, well-known college, for the sake of the resume and the prestige. It was about bragging rights. The Harvard report states that “there are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high the status is.” The hunt should be for the most suitable college based on their personality and interests.

Isn’t it interesting that most of their recommendations are common sense ideas? Perhaps encouraging students in these common sense directions will move the needle back toward genuine maturity and holistic engagement. They might even become students who are truly ready for college. That’s my hope.

 

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