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When applied to education, the word “developmental” carries profoundly negative undertones. It’s a synonym for remediation, and implies that a particular student is unprepared, deficit-riven, and at-risk.

But shouldn’t all education be developmental? Shouldn’t every educators’ goal be to promote students’ growth across every dimension, cognitive, to be sure, but also emotional, social, and ethical?

In his classic 1969 study of college students’ psycho-social maturation, Education and Identity, Arthur W. Chickering, who died last year, identified seven vectors of development:  developing competence, purpose, integrity, and mature interpersonal relationships, forging an adult identity, managing emotions, and moving from autonomy toward interdependence.

All worthy goals. But I know of no college or university that cultivates those developmental traits systematically or intentionally.

There are many reasons for this omission. After all, don’t interpersonal, intrapersonal, and ethical development lie outside faculty members’ expertise Wouldn’t it be presumptuous for colleges to intrude on students’ private or affective lives? And isn’t it the case that while colleges and universities can create ripe conditions for students’ maturation, non-cognitive development inevitably takes place outside the classroom, in the social interactions that take place in dorm rooms, cafeterias, and parties?

Promoting student psycho-social development inevitably sounds patronizing and paternalistic.

To be sure, many institutions now require students to undertake training in matters relating to sexual consent. A few colleges require some instruction in cross-cultural interaction and communication.

But by eschewing systematic efforts to nurture students’ holistic development, higher education is, in my view, missing out on a big opportunity and a pivotal task. More than that, our failure to conceive of higher education as developmental constricts and distorts the way we think about our curriculum, requirements, pedagogy, and learning objectives.

Were we to make holistic student development our primary educational goal, many of our individual courses and curricular pathways would be designed differently.

What steps could we take to make a college education more developmental?

1. We’d devote part of a student’s first year to developmental issues.
Study skills, mindset training, major selection, and academic success strategies should not be confined to a new student orientation or individual advising sessions. Rather than relegating such issues to a non-credit College 101 course, we need to embed these topics into the first-year academic experience. 

2. We’d treat writing, public speaking, and numeracy as elements as a developmental process.
One-and-done requirements transmit a powerful message: That writing, math, and oral presentation skills are, for most students, simply box-checking exercises. The alternative is to implant such skills in a far broader range of classes.

3.  We’d integrate career development across the curriculum.
We need to open windows into careers, discuss job market trends, provide more opportunities for students to acquire marketable skills, and give many more students the opportunity to build up their resume through internships, research experiences, and project-based learning activities, either individually or as part of a team. One strategy might be to offer a career development certificate; another, to encourage faculty to make career identification and preparation a part of their existing classes.

4.  We’d organize many more courses around hot topics.
Instead of relegating essential topics involving gender, sexuality, racism, and other forms of bias and discrimination to training, workshops, or elective courses, we need to develop for-credit classes designed to attract very broad arrays of students that explicitly address such topics as sexual consent, implicit bias, and structural racism.

5. We’d encourage arts appreciation through new kinds of learning experiences.
As student interest in the arts and humanities ebbs, especially at broad access public institutions where many students are anxiously pursuing vocational, technical, and pre-professional majors, so does their ability to respond to masterworks of architecture, art, literature, and music in a sophisticated way. Institutions might consider courses like Hunter College’s Humanities 20100, which combines attendance at on- and off-campus museum exhibitions and dance, musical, operatic, and theatrical performances with a signature seminar in which students share their personal reactions and examine the historical contexts and the aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical significance of the works they are seeing and hearing.

6. We’d increase access to physical activities of all kinds.
Campuses can incentivize physical activity not just through a rec center or campus swimming pools or intramural athletics, but by offering certificates or even credit for participation in aerobics, dance, yoga, and other health and fitness activities.

One melancholy aspect of aging is seeing breakthrough ideas flourish only to be subsequently forgotten and swept into history’s dustbin. Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development prompted many of us to recognize that human growth extends across the life course, and to understand that far from being a linear process, human development is beset by tensions, conflicts, contradictions, and reversals.

Erikson’s influence has certainly diminished, and I myself have tried to formulate a post-Eriksonian historically-inflected approach to human development.  But Erikson’s essential insights, which Arthur W. Chickering built upon, remain as illuminating, penetrating, and provocative today as they were decades ago.

Every college educator needs to acknowledge that the college years are – or ought to be – a crucial opportunity for students to grapple with a host of critical developmental issues involving identity, intimacy, sociability, autonomy, and generativity.  We ignore that psychological reality at our peril.

It’s well within our power to help students work through these issues. But that requires us to accept our true responsibility as teachers and mentors: To recognize that education, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, isn’t about us or our narrow interests; it’s ultimately about transforming callow, unpolished, often naïve and unsophisticated beings into worldly, reflective, knowing adults.

That’s our biggest responsibility, and we are remiss if we disregard this obligation.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

Inside Higher Ed