Educating for Personal & Social Responsibility: A Review of the Literature

By Swaner, Lynn E. | Liberal Education, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Educating for Personal & Social Responsibility: A Review of the Literature


Swaner, Lynn E., Liberal Education


WlTH ITS NATIONAL REPORT Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (2002), the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) highlighted the need for higher education to develop "responsible" learners, whose "sense of social responsibility and ethical judgment" (xii) is marked not only by intellectual honesty, but also by "discernment of . . . ethical consequences" of personal actions and "responsibility for society's moral health and for social justice" (24). Students' personal and social responsibility is thus identified as essential to the "learning students need to meet emerging challenges in the workplace, in a diverse democracy, and in an interconnected world" (vii). In considering how colleges and universities might answer this specific call, a review of the literature-conducted under the aegis of AAC&U's Educating for Personal and Social Responsibility project-examines current understandings of personal and social responsibility at the college level, and also identifies unanswered questions that might be explored through systemic inquiry. The findings of this review are discussed here in brief; the full review is available for download from the AAC&U Web site (see www.aacu.org/templeton).

In Educating Citizens: Preparing America s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility, Colby et al. (2003) assert that "before going further we need to address the question: What do we mean by moral and civic education? What is it that we are calling for?" (11). These questions are not easily answered. There is a lack of consensus in the literature about the meaning of terms like morality, responsibility, and character-let alone how to develop and educate for them. This is not an issue of semantics; rather, these various terminologies are reflective of distinct moral "languages" (Nash 1997) in the literature, which generally arise from three perspectives of moral development: that of moral cognition, moral affect, and moral behavior. Although limited in number, there are also a few integrative perspectives that attempt to incorporate these and other personality dimensions in a holistic view of the moral self. An overview of the literature on personal and social responsibility, therefore, must address the divergent strands of theory, research, and pedagogy arising from these four perspectives.

Moral cognition

Theories of moral cognition, which focus on cognitive processes such as reasoning and judging, comprise the predominant conceptual framework in the literature for describing moral development. Representing the foremost theory of this framework, Kohlberg's (1984) model depicts a progression in moral reasoning from a centeredness in the needs of the self (preconventional reasoning), to a growing awareness of community norms and expectations (conventional reasoning), and then to the development of universal moral principles such as justice (postconventional reasoning). Several other theories of moral cognition have arisen as critiques of Kohlberg's model. First, Gilligan (1977, 1982), in modifying Kohlberg's theory to be more descriptive of women's experiences, views an ethic of care (rather than of justice) as the focus of moral development; thus, moral reasoning attempts to balance the needs of-and avoid harm to-both self and others. Secondly, domain theorists of moral development such as Turiel (2002) differ with Kohlberg and assert that individuals "do not hold global conceptions of social right and wrong, but reason very differently about matters of morality, convention, and personal choice" (Nucci 2001, 6).

These theories of moral reasoning-among the most commonly cited in the literature-were primarily developed with children and early adolescents. In contrast, Perry's scheme of ethical and intellectual development was among the first examinations of college students' cognition. Through the positions of the Perry scheme, students move from a dualistic worldview that endorses absolute right and wrong, to a recognition of multiple and potentially valid perspectives, and then to a contextually relative approach to judging the adequacy of moral stances. …

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