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A Feb. 19 symposium will examine the role of a public university in promoting civic engagement among students, which for many is a way to put their moral values into practice.

Search for the soul of the U

Symposium asks the big question: What is the purpose of the university?

By Deane Morrison

Feb. 13, 2007

If students' bread is career preparation, what about nourishment for their hearts and souls? And how does a secular university provide that? Those questions go to the core of what it means to be a university and will be the theme of a symposium from 2:30 to 4:40 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19, in the Humphrey Institute's Cowles Auditorium on the Twin Cities campus. Called "Symposium on Civic Engagement and Moral Education," the gathering brings three prominent speakers in to tackle the question of how a university should help students sort out how to lead full lives as citizens. Implicit in the discussion is the idea that civic engagement is an individual's attempt to put her or his moral values to work in the world. But if moral values are rooted in religion for some people, how should a secular university help students explore them? And what about those for whom the drive for civic engagement stems from something other than morality and religion? What motivates those students and what is the role of the university in shaping their vision?

"The professor said, 'Let's talk about why [9/11] happened,'" Osburn recalls. "I was surprised no one was willing to bring up the elephant in the room: religion. Finally, I did. The professor blew it off."

"Civic engagement" doesn't have to mean joining organizations or being active in a political party; it could be as simple as voting or writing a letter to the editor, say two organizers of the event, Bryan Dowd and Robert Osburn. Whatever it means to an individual, it represents an attempt to make the world a better place. Dowd, director of graduate studies in health services research, policy, and administration, and Osburn, director of the MacLaurin Institute, say that this desire, at least in America, has religious roots, which creates an interesting situation at public universities.

At a pluralistic public university, teachers, students, and staff are likely to have different perspectives, even about morality. Invited speaker Nicholas Wolterstorff, a retired professor of philosophical theology at Yale University, will speak about how the lack of a common moral vision need not be an impediment to public universities educating students for citizenship.

No topic left behind The University of Minnesota is the perfect place for deep and even searing discussions, but they won't happen as long as people are afraid to broach certain topics, say Osburn and Dowd. In recalling his return to classes after the 9/11 disaster, Osburn, who was then a graduate student, found that a certain University of Minnesota professor wasn't open to discussing all angles of the issue. "The professor said, 'Let's talk about why this happened,'" Osburn recalls. "I was surprised no one was willing to bring up the elephant in the room: religion. Finally, I did. The professor blew it off. "I find professors are comfortable talking about race and culture. But the notion of the relativity of morals is also an example of the elephant. The most obvious example of how difficult conversation about morality becomes is when you consider the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." A hero to the Palestinians is a monster to the Israelis, and vice versa, he says. "You have to ask yourself if there's a larger framework to evaluate what's going on and why."

For students seeking more than academics

The University of Minnesota is creating a Web-based Student Engagement Planner where students can match their interests to meaningful experiences outside the classroom. Part of the University's Student Engagement Initiative, it will help students not only find activities but reflect on what they're doing and what they're learning, whether it be critical thinking skills or how to deal with different kinds of people. "We have found no other comparable universities doing this," says June Nobbe, director of the Office for Student Engagement and Leadership. The planner could debut as early as fall 2008.

Continual vigilance Although many colleges and universities offer hands-on "service learning," invited speaker Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, says he doesn't believe that activity by itself leads to long-term engagement. "I believe the primary purpose of a university is to help young people develop the intellectual tools to engage civically in a responsible and civil manner," he says. "The principles of American democracy must be rehearsed in college, [with students looking] at actual texts. I believe a lot of kids are starving for this kind of material." Another speaker, Richard Bernstein of the New School for Social Research, says students are most influenced by examples. "Frequently, the content of a course is far less important than how the teacher approaches the material," he explains. "Students are inspired by the passion, dedication, commitments, and vision of their teachers and peers." Bernstein says labels like "religious," "secular," "liberal" and "conservative" tend to muddy the waters when people are searching for ways to make the world a better place. It isn't the so-called "world view" that counts, but "the specific judgments about injustices and what is to be done about them that is crucial," he says.