The Meaning of Life 101

A new year has begun at America's 3,500 or so institutions of higher learning, which means it's time for yet another cycle of news about alcohol, sex, suicide and cheating.

As dean of the Duke University chapel, theologian William Willimon has heard more than his share of sobering statistics and angry debates about who is to blame. Instead of going around in old circles, he thinks it would be good if more educators had to sit down with students - sharing books or coffee or maybe both - and work on some big question of mutual concern.

Here's a good one: What is the meaning of life?

"The fact that many people are scared to ask that kind of question says a lot about the state of higher education," said Willimon. "People are afraid that it might lead to discussions of good and evil, of right and wrong, and we're not supposed to do that. But we need to be honest and admit there is no such thing as value-neutral education. We are teaching our students some kind of values, whether we want to or not."

So here's another good question: What is the meaning of meaninglessness?

At that point, students and teachers might find themselves talking about binge drinking, date rape, eating disorders, careerism and a legion of other issues. Willimon believes it's time for teachers to realize students need input from their elders - before it's too late.

"How can we be neutral on the role that alcohol plays on campuses?", he said. "How many people are going to have to fall off of fire escapes and die before we take this seriously? Somewhere along the line we lost our nerve, when it comes to talking about the things that matter the most."

Willimon is speaking from experience. Back in early 1990s, the theologian teamed with economist Thomas Naylor to create a freshman seminar called "The Search for Meaning." For starters, students had to write short papers about their lives. The results from a 1994 class were pretty typical. Seven of the 16 students said the event that most shaped them was their parents' divorce. Only one of the papers included any other reference to having had a father.

When it comes to meaningful relationships with adults, many students may as well be orphans, concluded Willimon and Naylor, in their book "The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education." The irony is that most live on campuses led by adults who, when they were students, attacked "in loco parentis" policies in which the college played a protective, parental role. Thus, most educators now use what Calvinist philosopher David Hoekema has called the "non sum mater tua (I am not your mama)" approach.

Willimon and Naylor don't mince words about the result: "We have failed to teach an ethic of concern. We have created a culture characterized by dysfunctional families, mass schooling that demands only minimal effort and media idols subliminally teaching disrespect for authority and wisdom. It is as if there were a conspiracy of parents and educators to deliberately ruin our children."

But it's too late, especially on secular campuses, for "in loco parentis." Instead, they suggest an "in loco amicis" approach, in which faculty dare to play the role of wise, experienced friends. At the very least, the advertising slogan "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" could be applied to sexual promiscuity, cheating, drug abuse and other moral issues.

This would require teachers to spend more time with students in and out of the classroom, requiring changes in academic policies that stress research, over teaching. Colleges may need to find alternatives to massive dormitories that depress and depersonalize students. Administrators will have to confront painful problems instead of hiding behind public-relations officers.

Parents and religious leaders also need to realize that today's campuses are even more risky - to body, mind and spirit - than those they knew, said Willimon.

"The average campus is not a benign or neutral environment," he said. "Sometimes the paganism comes in bottles. Sometimes it comes in books. But there's no denying that it's out there. Somebody or something is going to mold these students, one way or another."