Renewing the Ideal of Educating the Whole Person

By Theodore E. Long, president emeritus, Elizabethtown College

American higher education has always championed the education of the whole person.  But rarely have we designed systematic programs to achieve that ideal.  Now the many non-residential pathways students follow to get their education challenge our traditional reliance on the cocurriculum as the arena for whole-person education.  To renew the ideal of educating the whole person, we now have to be more intentional and systematic, and we have to ensure that such learning is anchored in a coherent educational program and faculty engagement with students.As the third prong of its initiative for transformative education (following engaged learning and civic engagement), the BTtoP project is now calling all colleges and universities to renew the ideal of educating the whole person.  As Andrew Delblanco has noted, “the American college was conceived . . . with the larger aim . . . to ‘develop the whole man’ (sic)” (2012, 40).  Over the last generation, our attention to this aspect of our historic vocation has withered as colleges and universities have become larger, as faculties have become more focused on increasingly narrow intellectual disciplines, and as institutional leaders have focused more on the business of higher education.  As a result, one of the most distinctive and uplifting aspects of higher education in America has been largely neglected. Now is the time for all those who believe in this ideal to join the BTtoP effort in making the case for whole-person education and to lead their institutions toward the realization of that ideal.  If we do not do so, we will have sacrificed our educational birthright, the genius of American higher education. In an era when content can be delivered anywhere via the Internet, the personal engagement of faculty (and student life professionals in residential colleges) to shape the whole person can be one of the most distinctive and valuable aspects of higher education today.For more than a decade, BTtoP has been concerned with how students’ lack of well-being undermined their academic success and we have sought ways to nourish their personal capacity for learning.  This new strand of BTtoP’s work builds on that work in two ways.  In addition to its focus on how psychosocial issues affect cognitive learning, this initiative will also focus on the personal development of students as a learning outcome itself.  And beyond reclaiming students’ capacity for learning, the project will also address the largest possibilities for student development —robust flourishing, deep self-realization, and diverse personal capacities. The project will not just rely on an elite group of scholars and administrators to figure out how to do this.  An essential part of this effort involves consultations with students and faculty, as well as the education and recruitment of trustees to support the cause.  And as always, the project will involve campuses across the country to seek out and support good ideas and effective practices.At a recent meeting of leaders of this initiative, we talked about who could make a difference in bringing this issue to the fore in higher education, and how they could do so.  It is clear to me that my presidential colleagues are critical to this effort, for presidents set agendas, manage the purse strings, and carry the moral authority to advocate for important issues.  While presidential leadership on national issues has receded, we still are powerful voices for educational values.  In an era when so many are narrowing the importance of higher education to instrumental career values, we should be on the front lines advocating for the larger, historic purposes of our enterprise.  This is where we can make a dramatic difference, and I strongly exhort all my colleagues to join me in leading this initiative.ReferenceDelblanco, A. 2012. College: What it Was, Is and Should Be. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.