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Reckoning with the young adult conscience
Sometimes we in universities wonder if thinking about the development of conscience among students is our job. In his 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, the educator and provocateur Stanley Fish said absolutely not—and don’t hold us accountable after they graduate and become terrible people.
But research overwhelmingly shows that moral development is an area of dramatic change and growth during the college years, particularly among students who attend four-year, primarily residential colleges, and even more particularly among first-year students.
The thing about the moral development of young adults—and the development of conscience—is that we don’t actually know what precipitates it or what impacts it. Maybe it’s the interactions of young people with peers who have diverse attitudes and backgrounds. Maybe it’s our fantastic classes. Maybe it’s the conversations students are having in their residence halls. Maybe it’s the general climate of social justice on campus.
What we do know is that moral growth among college students does not correlate with cognitive ability or cognitive motivation. We would expect that people who are interested in expanding their horizons are the people whose horizons are going to be expanded and whose moral conscience and moral consciousness might be impacted by college. But as a matter of fact, that doesn’t seem to be the full story.
So, what we have is a lack of information. Something’s happening, but we don’t know what it is. And as a person who works at a university, I’m fascinated. I talk with students a lot about their concerns around moral decision-making, sexual decision-making, relationship decision-making. And with all due respect to Stanley Fish, I think if moral development is going to take place while young adults are here, and in very dramatic ways, and we happen to be here doing something called education, then it behooves us to get in on this and help them with it.
This includes helping them discover the moral philosophy they came with—and helping them ask questions about its sufficiency, questions like, What am I doing when I’m making a moral judgment? How much do my feelings and the feelings of others matter in my decisions? What do I think counts as a moral issue? Is my moral framework sufficient not only to my own life, but to all of our lives?
In Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis, titled The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014), the author points out the pope’s preference for the concrete over the abstract, and the particular over theory. For Francis, the fundamental orientation of conscience is to God, not to the magisterium: to persons rather than theologies.
I think back to the stories in this biography of Pope Francis’s ways of forming seminarians when he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the vocation director in Argentina for the Jesuits. He had the seminarians work in the barrios before they studied theology. When they would come to him and say we’ve got to read for class, he’d say, First go—Mrs. So-and-So has a problem. Go solve her problem and then study theology.
In Francis’s theology of encounter, raising consciousness awakens us to what conscience calls us to do. Work on the ground, and awareness of the problems of our age, call us not to the problems, but to the person in front of us.
That, to me, solves the problem of how we, in the university, do this. A lot is happening with our students, morally, ethically, and personally. To get in on that conversation with them means not only to encounter them where they are, but also to help them encounter the people who need them to think more actively and reasonably and responsibly and lovingly about the world.
Kerry Cronin ’87, MA’91, Ph.D. ’15, is the associate director of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College and the faculty fellow in Boston College’s Center for Student Formation. She teaches in the interdisciplinary Perspectives program, is involved in organizing student retreats, and is a frequent speaker on student culture at college campuses.
Cronin’s essay is drawn and adapted from her remarks at a Church in the 21st Century Center panel, “Women’s Voices: Forming Conscience, Raising Consciousness,” on October 11.