Those of us who teach ethics courses are painfully aware that success in an academic course in ethics is not the same thing as success in becoming a truly good human being. Sadly, it is possible to pass exams on ethical theories and to write papers that demonstrate proper ethical reasoning, and take none of it to heart. The ethics professor's ultimate nightmare is the sociopathic student who uses what s/he has learned in the ethics course to become a more persuasive liar, a more effective cheat, a more dangerous abuser of others. This is why it is so very important that students should enjoy not just a course or two in ethics, but a total college experience that inspires them to growth as a whole person.
Nazareth's Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue sponsored a wonderful Interfaith Understanding Conference this past weekend, and one of the keynote speakers was Dr. Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core. Dr. Patel spoke of three things students need in order to become interfaith leaders; three things that could be said to promote moral growth as well. First, students need to have emotionally powerful experiences that capture their imagination and move their hearts. Second, they should be invited to participate actively in worthwhile activities, to feel valued and needed. Third, they should be given opportunities to lead, to experience the empowering joy of personal accomplishment. Students whose college education includes these three elements are likely to grow not only in mind but in character as well. Although it pains the ethics professor to admit it, the classroom is one of the least likely places on campus for the student to have these three experiences.
Thus, the great significance of the "co-curricular" component of college life. Activities of students with their sports teams, community service projects, special interest clubs, spirituality events, arts participation, or student government, experiences they have in their dormitories, internships, field placements and jobs, are most likely to touch their emotions, challenge them to involvement, and give them the opportunity to lead. When the co-curricular life of the college is stimulating, diverse, and humane, and the curriculum provides the opportunity for rigorous academic study of ethics, the combined result is an environment in which the young adult can become - rather than a skilled "menace to society" - a person ready to make a positive difference in our troubled world.