Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions
Pete Mather serves as the senior associate editor for the Journal of College and Character and is a professor in higher education and student affairs at Ohio University. He is providing this column in Connexions based on his 2021-2022 academic year sabbatical. During his sabbatical, Pete has been interviewing innovative thinkers about the future of student engagement in higher education, reading on the topic of higher education reform, and has been on a soul-searching mission to discover ways of encouraging best models of practice for today's and tomorrow's students. This column focuses on how higher education faculty and administrators can promote moral development in an evolving higher education environment.
Please see his reflection/adventure/sabbatical blog here.
Before I set out on my year-long, solo camping adventure, many of my beloved friends and family members were concerned about me—a confirmed extrovert—spending this extended period alone. As I heard these concerns from the people who knew me well, I became circumspect about my sabbatical plan. Despite the hesitation, I decided to launch into my adventure, even though I had not camped for decades and never alone.
I began my adventure after nearly one and a half years of coronavirus isolation, when many people were feeling alone and disheartened. Mental health concerns, which were prevalent prior to COVID, became even more pronounced as the pandemic persisted, and people became more isolated from important people and places. Prior to my journey, I too had often found myself in something of a funk, often feeling a sense of loss and emptiness due to disconnection from students, friends, and family. Yet, just as many of the COVID restrictions were being loosened, I opted for an adventure that seemed destined to result in a long period of continued solitude.
Ironically, as I was spending time alone on mountain trails, on beaches, and in the confines of my tent, I felt an uncommon and deep connection to the world. In part, this was a result of what Barbara Fredrickson (2013) called “micro moments of connection.” As I encountered others on the trail, there was a sense that we were all in on a great secret—a secret that is difficult to fully articulate. It was a spiritual connection to the beauty found in magnificent mountains and peaceful streams, in the sounds of singing birds and images of richly colored meadows. I recognized the profound emotional experience I was having reflected in the joyful faces of fellow hikers. When we passed each other, often few words were spoken, but there were frequent knowing glances and smiles reflecting that we were having a shared experience with nature’s treasures and mysteries. Occasionally, we would stop and talk about the breathtaking complexion of our adventures.
Even on days I did not encounter others on trails, I felt a powerful sense of connection to the world. Loneliness was occasionally my partner, and it manifested as a desire to share this special experience with those closest to me. It reminded me of the richness of community and connection. The counterpart of loneliness—deep connection—was more commonly my reality. This sense of connection was nurtured by the beauty surrounding me, but also by the growing awareness and consciousness of my own presence. I was uncommonly aware of both my surroundings and my own physical, emotional, and spiritual being. This growing awareness led me to appreciate and value my own company. Even when the realizations I had about myself were centered in disappointment, hurt, and uncertainty, there was an accompanying experience of acceptance of my own incompleteness, my fragility, and my mortality.
In higher education, we hold up “community” as a foundation of learning. Indeed, we know that through deep conversations and other connections, we become better prepared and more able to contribute to a world that is teeming with challenges, needs, and opportunities, as well as profound differences in the ways members of our communities see the world. As educators, we believe rich interactions in educational settings are essential to adapting to and preparing for a complex, global society. We appropriately, I believe, beat the drum of “building community” as a means of nurturing consciousness of our interdependence and fostering adaptive behaviors that we characterize as moral and ethical. We recognize that college campuses provide a great laboratory for experiencing community—for cultivating the kind of exchanges that lead to personal growth. And yet, amid a wealth of potential for investing in community, loneliness is rampant.
This reality of loneliness in our increasingly atomized society (Putnam, 2021)—including on college campuses and within classrooms—portends a pressing need to cultivate ways of educating that enrich authentic experiences with oneself, and approaches to being together that encourage and enliven authenticity. The time I spent both alone and in deep (if fleeting) connection with others on my sabbatical journey nurtured my capacity for closeness to others and to myself. The natural world invited me to attend to my sense of wonder, my curiosity, my feelings, and the presence of others more fully. My most significant learning experiences occurred because I was inspired to examine myself and the natural world more deeply. Nature’s resilience, interdependence, diversity, and beauty led to a thirst for knowledge and a desire to explore and learn more. While living in these moments of passionate curiosity, I was also embracing the precious opportunities I had to discover what my fellow travelers were sensing, thinking, and caring about.
What does this mean for the enrichment of the college experience? A sense of connectedness and fullness happens when educators situate learning in the rich historical, social, and personal realities of students’ lives, and in the spaces that are recognized and unrecognized. It requires nurturing the meaning students are making of their lives as they experience their communities, as well as their curriculum and cocurriculum. Rich connection to self and community rests on recognizing that the richness of the college experience often extends beyond our curricular and programmatic designs. Even when we thoughtfully create learning experiences to educate students toward our understandings of success in selected careers and in life, it is important that we recognize and affirm the enigmatic, hidden curriculum that is at work in the lives of students.
When studying biology or astronomy, students might often be drawn to contemplating the intricate and grand mysteries of the world and of their lives. From art to social sciences and pre-professional programs, we would be wise to foster appreciation for what is unknown and often unknowable in a complex and ever-changing world. The world is too fluid and intricate to ensure that today’s set of facts or extant fields of knowledge will equip people to deal with the future that lies ahead of them, or even with the world that is before them in the present. When we model and encourage too much certainty, we suppress students’ connection to their own lives. We suppress the connections that can be strengthened through recognizing and embracing our vulnerabilities. By pushing the false narrative of certainty, we encourage dissonance and disconnection within students and thereby contribute to the fragmentation of communities, pervasive loneliness, and a loss of creative possibilities that can emerge from collective energy.
In order to cultivate a more profound community life, we as educators have work to do that is ostensibly outside of our explicit areas of specialization. Parker Palmer (2004) pointed out that teachers must drop the pretense of their own completeness and “discover what is dormant in themselves” (p. 82) to aid students in being more deeply connected to themselves and their promise. Just as I began to hear my own inner teacher through my adventure, my most sacred goal is to help students listen to theirs.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. Avery.
Palmer, P. J. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. Jossey-Bass.
Putnam, R. D. (2021). The upswing: How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again. Simon & Schuster.