From the Director: Why Should Higher Education Care About Well-Being?

By Don Harward, Director, BTtoP

In January 2014, BTtoP announced the emphasis for its next few years of work: raising attention to well-being as the third dimension of the core purposes of higher education. We are focused on the inextricable connections, in both theory and practice, among the civic, engaged learning, and well-being—the transformative conditions of flourishing, self-realization, purposefulness, and of being ‘whole’ in the world.

Our initial objective has been to achieve a clearer understanding of what well-being and its composites (flourishing, purposefulness, persistence, transformation, and emergent personal identity) mean. What evidence supports their connection to learning or to civic understanding and actions? And most importantly, what would be gained by increasing attention to well-being in higher education? We know that to answer these questions will require more research, greater development of analysis and conceptual inquiry, and initiatives on multiple campuses developing best practices, policies, and structures that are supportive of well-being.

Significantly increasing attention to well-being, however, cannot be achieved by BTtoP-supported projects or research alone. The effort will require us to encourage a pattern of collaboration and cooperation—a broad and strong network of institutions, associations, scholars, practitioners, and the public at large. Peter Levine’s new book We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For (Oxford University Press, 2013) argues convincingly that significant social (and, I would add, educational) change gets made through the cultivation of a network of similar-minded organizations, associations, institutions, and public voices. While having no connecting thread, what emerges is a web of connections, each locale on that web influencing its own contacts.

If raising up well-being starts with the work of clarification, analysis, and confirming evidence, it must move to an inclusive effort of accomplishing this second objective: achieving the participation and engagement of multiple institutions, associations, foundations—and with them, scholars, practitioners, and the public. But why should anyone care? What strategy would succeed in generating inclusive interest, and result in making well-being a priority?

We believe that raising attention to well-being and the demonstrated effects of doing so could be the key ingredient in the making of a full, newly enhanced, and compelling case for liberal education—its transformative virtues, its inherent utility, and its promise to prepare learners for being in the world. Establishing such a case could provide reason for interest and involvement because it would change the conversation about higher education’s core purposes—and when the conversation shifts, actions follow. Moreover, it would be both timely and relevant to use such a strategy, answering liberal education’s prevailing critics, as well as providing a needed response to its own perceived marginalization.

Building a more complete and compelling case for liberal education must be done while appreciating the three partial cases or justifications most frequently provided: (1) the epistemic case; (2) the civic case; and, (3) an economic or work/jobs case. These cases cite necessary elements (both the civic and the work cases have only recently been given deserved attention) but even together they are not sufficient.

What has been missing is the dimension that can be demonstrated to be central to the transforming and liberating power of liberal education—how greater attention to well-being creates conditions for affecting students as whole persons; how it has the power to be emancipatory; how it is meaningfully measured and promoted. With the identification of both theory and best practices, what can be created and assessed is a campus culture for learning and engagement that is highly mindful of well-being, practicing such mindfulness in theory and action. This is what we want to achieve and promote.

Making well-being a key part of a more complete case for liberal education is likely to face the judgment that it is too vague to be salient, too emotive to be relevant. To the contrary, we believe it is a case waiting to be made—once made, it will resonate with what has always been a key motivation for educators: to make a difference in the lives of students.

We will want to consider how a full and convincing case for liberal education is transferrable (adaptable and affordable) as best practices and policies applicable to all institutions of higher education. It may be that the core purposes of any category of higher education (community or technical college, or research graduate school) should include focus on the well-being of the whole student. As a result, the basic conversation regarding the purpose of higher education is changed—it becomes more porous, and gains deeper meaning and more compelling justification. Regardless of the route taken in higher education, learners could find educational opportunities designed to help them flourish—to realize, actualize, and prepare for living meaningfully in the world.