On the afternoon of Sept. 24, a rowdy, drunken mob formed along Vine Street, trashing the street and lawns, damaging cars, and creating havoc in a community that prides itself on neighborliness and a spirit of good will. Many of the participants were university students.

It was not an isolated incident. Similar riots, involving drunken students, overturned cars and destruction of property have happened throughout the U. S. recently in university neighborhoods in Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, New York and Michigan.

I teach at a university. And like many educators, I take satisfaction in believing that I am doing my part to help young people mature, to discover their talents and to use those talents to make the world a better place.

But when events like these happen, I begin to question whether I’m part of the problem. Are we teaching the wrong things, or teaching in the wrong ways, or are there larger cultural factors at work?

Perhaps it is all of the above. 

Most students go to a university to find their place in the world. They go seeking the knowledge, skills and experience that will help them get a job, settle into a community, perhaps buy a house and start a family. They desire belonging.

Yet they also desire freedom. They seek the knowledge, skills and experience that will enable them to have more choices, to travel, to find opportunities, not to be bound by the necessities of preexisting ties.

This dual desire — for freedom and belonging — will persist throughout their lives. Whether they find happiness depends to a large extent on how well they manage to harmonize these two competing desires. Belonging without freedom becomes oppressive; freedom without belonging becomes destructive.

Universities excel at satisfying the desire for freedom. We even have an expression for the kind of freedom that comes from education: “upward mobility.” But it could instead be called “outward mobility,” because moving up often requires moving out and away — to another company, another city, even another country.

Nearly all of our nation’s educational system is designed to teach the priority of freedom over belonging. The standardized tests by which K-12 performance is judged consist of general knowledge and skills, not familiarity with the particular. The U. S. Department of Education isn’t interested in whether students know the names of their neighbors across the street or the plants, fish and birds of the Upper Mississippi River. And professional associations, which have increasing influence over the curriculum in universities, are interested only in national standards, not local engagement.

Of course, general skills and national standards are important, but they need to be balanced by ties to the local and the particular. Otherwise there is no context for meaningful ethical development.

Ethical obligation is not merely an abstract, rational phenomenon. It is not a matter of simply learning rules for behavior and then following them. Our obligations grow out of our emotional ties.

Numerous research studies show that people do not behave well under conditions of anonymity. (You can see that for yourself. Just view the online version of most newspapers where people can post comments without using their real names.) People tend to act responsibly only within networks of mutual accountability.

In the university setting, networks of mutual accountability are established mainly through the faculty. They are the ones who interact with students on a daily basis. They teach classes, choose the textbooks, advise, counsel and write letters of recommendation. If they think something is important, it will be passed on to the students.

Do faculty members think local engagement is important? Most of us will say so, but our primary loyalty remains to our respective professions, not our local communities. You can tell by the organizations we belong to.

Until educators figure out how to address the need for belonging, by making meaningful membership in a community an integrated part of university life, we will continue to have misbehavior from overly enthusiastic and misguided undergraduates. In fact, it is surprising it doesn’t happen more often. The fact that it doesn’t is a credit to the students themselves.

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

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