Character and the 18-year-old male

Resume and glasses. Image: Flazingo via FlickrNew York Times columnist David Brooks has been writing and speaking recently about issues of character.  For some examples, see this Ted Talk and this article in The Atlantic.  A number alumni have sent me references to his most recent offering in which he reflects on the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues.

Brooks writes:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

These reflections have some relevance for educational institutions, as our alumni were suggesting.  Educational institutions are far better at résumé virtues, and maybe even slightly skeptical about trying to develop eulogy virtues. But that is not true of every institution.

At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University our Catholic and Benedictine tradition speaks directly to the issue of eulogy virtues.  While we certainly care about the skills our students bring into the marketplace, we also care deeply about the kinds of people we send into the world, and our Benedictine tradition is instrumental in forming our graduates.

But, of course, there are good reasons that educational institutions and individuals often focus on résumé virtues rather than eulogy virtues. The latter are harder to talk about, subject to disagreement about the exact nature of these virtues and not easily taught or learned.

I was thinking about this recently when speaking to a young man, a high school senior, who was visiting our campus.

I spoke to him in general terms about the college selection process. I then spent a little more time talking about the specific benefits of an education at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s.  There are many things that make our residential, liberal arts experience great and the community at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s special, but I consciously did not focus on the thing that I believe makes our educational experience unique: the way in which it changes our students by developing character.

The average 17-18 year-old wants to know what professional opportunities a college education will provide once he graduates. She wants to know if she will meet students like herself and form deep friendships.  He is interested in extracurricular opportunities and the romantic ones as well.  But talk of virtue, morals and character will leave the typical high school senior at best perplexed, and maybe even a little cold.

To tell the prospective college student that while their résumé might look similar if they went to Arizona State, they will graduate from Saint Ben’s or Saint John’s a fundamentally different person because of what they will experience in our community is too abstract and might even come across as arrogant.

So we often hide our light under a bushel and leave our strongest attribute unspoken because our “customers” aren’t quite ready to hear and understand.  It is just not where most 18-year-olds are as they contemplate their next four years.

We must be satisfied in knowing that over the course of four years, the 18-year-old turns into a 22-year-old who goes into the world with both a transformed résumé and character – and that we are proud to call that individual a Johnnie or a Bennie.

Image: Flazingo via Flickr

By |July 27th, 2015|Categories: Alumni, Higher Education||0 Comments

The Narrative

Many of us on campus follow the press about higher education, with both personal and professional interest, and share articles and essays with each other.  Jon McGee, our VP for Planning and Public Affairs, noted a recent article in Forbes entitled, “Higher Education ‘Is Failing Students And Employers’ ” that seems, depressingly, to capture the current narrative: higher education is fundamentally broken but there are some simple things that will fix it.

As Jon writes, pulling no punches:

This story appeared this week in Forbes on-line.  It’s so thoroughly misleading that it’s worth the read.  The story hews to the headline:  new studies suggest that higher education in the U.S. fails students and employers because it fails to provide students the skills required to join the workforce.  The writer describes American higher education as in desperate need of repair.  He suggests three easy solutions:  provide more “practical and applied education experiences” (which is code for many different things, but essentially reduces college to an apprenticeship experience), “use technology to improve access, experience, variety, and outcomes” (a popular screed that lacks any kind of real meaning or content), and “strengthening relationships with strategic partners” (a statement worthy of a Dilbert comic strip in its jargon-laden vapidness).   The problem with the story, and others like it, is that people are inclined to believe it even though there is no evidence to support the claim.  The two easiest ways to evaluate the economic value of education are wages and employment.  Here’s the real picture:

  • Among full-time employed workers age 25 and older, median weekly earnings in 2014 (annualized data) for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher were $1,193 – 57% higher than median weekly wages for those with only some college or an associate degree and a whopping 79% higher than wages for high school graduates who have no college experience.  Higher wages reflect the value of the skills people provide. Higher skills command higher wages.  Really simple, and empirical, market economics.  Presumably, if the claim were correct that higher education fails to provide the skills required to join (and succeed in) the workforce, then we would see either depressed wages or a lower wage premium.  Neither is true.
  • The employment data is even more stark.  In the 246 months since January 1, 1995 (meaning the last 20 years), the national unemployment rate for people aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher has surpassed 5% only 7 times (each of those months during the darkest days of the Great Recession).  The unemployment rate for college graduates has been under 3% in 156 of those months. Put another way, the unemployment rate for college graduates has been under 3% in 13 of the last 20 years.  By comparison, the unemployment rate for high school graduates/no college has NEVER been below 3% in the last 20 years and has been above 5% EVERY month since March 2008.  For those with some college or an associate degree, the unemployment rate has been above 3% every month since July 2001 and over 5% nearly one-third of the time.  Again, if college graduates truly were not prepared for workforce entry or workforce success, we would expect to see higher rates of unemployment.  But we don’t.

Clearly there is plenty of room for improvement in higher education.  And the data I cited do not indicate that college-educated workers maximize their productivity (though I couldn’t find any data indicating they were not productive or were less productive).  But, the claim of failure is pure hyperbole – interjected in a cultural milieu that already overvalues hyperbole.  And for that reason, it’s dangerous.  But, where’s the beef? In a market economy, wage and employment rates provide powerful signals about economic value.  And real economic data suggests a different story.


I would also note three additional things:

  1. British system.  The author, Nick Morrison, is a Brit who writes often for the Daily Telegraph and Guardian and was educated at Oxford.  I suspect that his strong ties to Britain and experience with the British educational system color his views of education and the American system.  The British system, ironically with the primary exceptions of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, is much more focused on career or vocational training.  The liberal arts curriculum, which emphasizes breadth as well as depth, is “America’s gift to higher education,” as I once heard it described.  The British model tracks students early and the fork in the road between vocational training and the university track comes in the early teens, if not sooner.  If we care about the economic futures of young people, especially first generation students and students of color, I’d place my trust in an educational system, with all its warts and challenges, that since the Second World War has produced the best educated and richest population the world has ever seen.
  2. Heterogeneity.  The narrative about higher education assumes a homogeneity about higher education that is fundamentally wrong.  With 4000+ institutions of higher education in the United Sates and 2000+ four year institutions, the variety is incredible.  Across this diverse universe, there are places performing badly and many doing exceptionally well.  To echo a point Jon made, in a market economy, consumer choice is a pretty good judge of how a sector is performing, and I see no evidence that students are fleeing this market, Peter Theil notwithstanding.
  3. Job versus career.  Much of the press on higher education tends to focus on first jobs and first employers, but the real value of an investment in human capital is over a lifetime.  The evidence of that lifetime value is strong and the benefits appear to be growing.

2015-05-10_SJU_Commencement_125As frustrating as the simplistic narrative can be, our primary job is to continue to do good things for our students, whose success is indisputable, but we can also be more intentional in sharing our educational story with prospective students and parents.  It is here that our alumni and friends can help too.  Feel free to share your Saint John’s or Saint Ben’s story with high school students and their parents to assure them that an investment in higher education continues to be the best investment they will ever make.

Libraries, Information and Student Learning

juanillooo via Flickr

juanillooo via Flickr

Arguably the most important invention in educational history was movable type by Johannes Gutenberg.  Around 1439, mass communication and literacy became possibilities as they never had been in previous human history.  The implications for universities were obvious: a great university needed a great library since that was where information and knowledge were stored.

As books spread and their cost came down, individuals had significantly more access to information, but no single individual could have a library that ever rivaled the great universities.  This was the state of knowledge and information for over five hundred years, and it explains why, at least among academics, the greatest university libraries could even be known by their own names: Widener (Harvard) or Bodleian (Oxford). They were like rock stars—Sting, Cher, Madonna or Bono.  The correlation between library quality, usually measured by the number of volumes, and university quality was extremely high.  This was in part because a well-resourced library usually meant a great endowment, but access to the information and knowledge in books also meant the potential for a fine education.

In the late 1990s, of course, another information revolution happened.  The internet brought the democratization of information much further than cheap books ever could.  In less than two decades, anyone with a computer and a good internet connection had access to information that rivaled or even surpassed the great libraries of the world.  The internet changed the world of information, data and knowledge.  While Widener arguably remains  the best academic library in the world, the gap between the information a Harvard student has access to and what a Saint John’s University student can get in Collegeville has become almost indistinguishable for the typical undergraduate’s needs.

The academic playing field in terms of information access has leveled in ways that were once unimaginable.  That is not to say that education quality has necessarily become identical across institutions. Information is only one input into the process.  Faculty quality and commitment, the importance of peer quality and behavior (cohort effects), the extra-curricular experience and many other factors are part of a great educational experience.  But, nonetheless, something fundamental changed because of the internet.

For educators, one of the most interesting questions and challenges is how students use this amazing gift of information: texts, data, images, sounds, videos, etc.  A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article explored one aspect of this new world. Using data from the Association of Research Libraries, Brian Matthews looked at the number of “reference queries” that research libraries received annually.  Basically, how many questions did students ask professional reference librarians over the course of a year?  The two tables below show the top ten research libraries by reference queries for 1995 and 2014:

Reference Queries: Top 10 Libraries, 1995


Reference Queries: Top 10 Libraries, 2014



Clearly student behavior has changed dramatically in the 20 years since the information revolution spurred by the growth of the internet.  What is less clear is what this means.  Assuming the nature of assignments and student work has not changed dramatically (the same number and type of research projects and papers are being assigned), there seem to be two possibilities:

  1.  Students are simply finding most of what they think they need for their work on the internet, and therefore they are asking fewer questions.
  2. The nature of the questions is changing and reference librarians are doing a different kind of work.

It seems that one obvious way to test these hypotheses is to look at what has happened to the number of reference librarians.  If the questions are the same but fewer in number, we would expect the number of reference librarians to drop, as it would take fewer of them to answer significantly fewer inquiries.  If the questions have changed and the nature of the reference librarians’ task has become more complicated, the number of librarians could stay the same or even grow.

A quick internet search revealed that in 2014 there were 26,000 academic librarians employed in the US and 59,000 other paid staff. However, comparable data was not readily available for 1995.

Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, overall librarian employment was predicted to grow by 7% between 2012 and 2022.  Nothing very definitive here, but there does not seem to be a drop in demand for librarians, suggesting that the changing number of reference queries might also reveal a change in the type of queries.

One librarian, commenting on the data above, offers a description of how his or her work had changed since 1995 that is consistent with what faculty at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have observed:

I worked for 34 years as a reference librarian up to five years ago and my experience was that the nature of the questions changed from fact based to more evaluative inquiries. For instance a question in 1995 would have been, “What is the population of Sudan?” A more recent question would be, “What effect have refugees from Sudan had on the society and economy of Kenya?” Fact and figures, the bread and butter questions of yesteryear, are readily available on the internet or one of the many library subscription databases. The more recent questions call for more critical thinking skills and evaluation skills. Library instruction and higher expectations from the classroom faculty are in part responsible for this trend.

I think educators observing this change in behavior among students as a result of the second information revolution would have at least two reactions:

  1. A cause for concern: as students seek out factual data, are they capable of evaluating its quality?  To simply say, “I found it on the internet” is hardly a confirmation of legitimacy.  Well-educated students swimming in an ocean of information and data need to be discerning consumers of the incredible resources they have access to.  It is here that reference and data professionals continue to be necessary, even if students are not always aware of their own needs.  Colleges and universities now spend much more time on information literacy than they ever did in the past, and that educational process begins with learning how to evaluate sources of information.
  2. A cause for celebration: students all over the world are quite literally capable of more and better work than they were before the internet revolution.  The “evaluative inquiries” described by the librarian above are much more sophisticated and subtle than merely factual questions.  They also readily lend themselves to being framed as hypotheses: refugees from Sudan have harmed (or helped) the economy of Kenya in X ways for Y reasons.  Rather than spending many hours gathering factual data, students can move quickly to research questions that were not possible for undergraduates before the internet existed.  Faculty know this and teach accordingly. Personally, I have directed senior theses in economics that were undoubtedly masters’ quality work in the late 2oth century,  yet were “merely” good but not extraordinary work for the 21st.


The second information revolution is almost exclusively a good thing as it democratizes access to information for students (and non-students) around the world.  It does suggest that colleges and universities need to think carefully about what it means to graduate well-educated digital natives, as the millennials are sometimes called.  Among other outcomes:

  1. Information literacy is likely to become as essential as good writing and communication for future students.
  2. Faculty will need to continually evaluate their assignments and expectations as the availability of information and data continues to grow.
  3. The already close relationship between library staff and faculty is likely to grow stronger as information and data professionals are needed to keep faculty abreast of the constantly growing availability of information in each professor’s specialty.
  4. And students are going to continue to need ongoing – and maybe growing – help from reference professionals as they navigate the sea of information to ask deeper and more complicated questions.

Our plans to renovate, re-design and add to Marcel Breuer’s beautiful Alcuin Library at Saint John’s University are driven in part by these new realities brought about by the internet revolution.  The result of these internal and external changes will be graduates who are likely to be better educated than any previous generation in history.