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For the past twenty-two years I have taught English literature at the University of Dallas, a Catholic school grounded in the Western intellectual tradition. A year and a half ago, in a fit of insanity, I also became the dean of students. As dean, you quickly get a crash course in a number of things, and the revelations can be surprising, dispiriting, and cheering. One thing I have learned is that most students come to us steeped in the anthropology that Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor termed expressive individualism, in which autonomy becomes the highest good to which all other goods are subordinated. And often, those of us in the student life office—even at places like the University of Dallas—don’t do enough to help our students combat this way of thinking, and might even make it worse. After only seventeen months in the job, I do not pretend to have all of the solutions. But the following eight rules are quite clear to me. 

1. We first have to get the anthropology right. Our students are not monads, self-created individuals, but persons. They are created beings, tied to others by family and community. 

2. This means we have to get the language right. We have to start talking to students in terms of the great liberal tradition that has provided powerful language and concepts contra expressive individualism, that shows them that eudaimonia—a fulfilling life, a happy life, the best life—cannot be achieved through expressive individualism. I suggest we start with the Nicomachean Ethics. (I tend to handle conduct cases by saying, “You know, I’m an Aristotelian; I think man by nature desires the good,” and then asking, “What is the good you were seeking when you did x, y, and z?”) 

3. This means we must tie student life to what is happening in the classroom. For too long deans and their staff members have been drawn from the ranks of the administrative class, and student life offices have been separate from professors, classes, and the life of the intellect. A dean of students should be an academic, a professor who can translate the language of the classroom into the language of the dorm. And he should hire staff for those qualities as well. A dean of students who cannot, for instance, articulate clearly and effectively the difference between liberty and license and connect it to students’ lives simply cannot get at the crucial concepts our students desperately need in their day to day living. 

4. We need to get the built environment right. No one flourishes in a drab institutional building isolated with a narrow age group. Such a building can never have memory, never have mentorship, never have living traditions. Instead, we need beautiful dorms with multi-age communities—plenty of freshmen, yes, but also well-chosen upperclassmen, graduate students, and even young professors and their families. Younger students can see how a life can be lived two years, five years, even twenty years into the future. (Something of this sort happens on our Rome campus, where professors and their families, twenty-something Rome Coordinators, and students all live together, travel together, eat together, play and pray together.) And of course, this system goes back to the great Oxbridge colleges of the past, in which “dons” lived with layers of different students. In such an environment, students learn hospitality, adult encounter, and yes, adult suffering (and thus misericordia).

5. This can help us get adulthood right. When young adults live among actual adults and even families, they grow up; they live up to their responsibilities. I have declared my own personal little war on the concept of “extended adolescence.” I simply don’t care about the research saying that the brain is not fully developed until age twenty-five. For several millennia, that was never an excuse for stupid, boorish, or even malicious behavior, and I refuse to allow it as an excuse now. My father was put in charge of a huge supply depot in Exeter, England, in 1945 over a month before his twenty-first birthday. We have to insist that students be adults, act as adults, accept responsibilities like adults, dress like adults, and address others like adults. 

6. We need to get the body right. A university is, and should be, a “heady” place, a place of the intellect. But those intellects reside in bodies, and we must encourage their bodies’ use in healthy ways. By this I don’t just mean having great exercise equipment or a robust intramural program. I suggest that students need to use their hands in woodworking, or gardening, or plumbing, or tinkering with cars, or sewing. Only in this way can we have men—and women—with C. S. Lewis’s “chests”—not just heads and bellies and genitalia. 

7. We need to get the complementarity of the sexes right. If we get the anthropology right, this should follow quite naturally. Yet most universities refuse to recognize this. They fight against it, and do not benefit from the great advantages that can come from acknowledging the reality of differences between the sexes—in programming, in the built environment, in the way disputes are handled. 

8. We need to get festivity right. It’s foolish to think students won’t throw parties, and that those parties might be excessive precisely because in every other way the therapeutic nanny state is watching their every move. After all, adults throw parties, and adults attend them. Humans are designed for love and friendship, and often those are best formed over a wonderful meal, visiting a faculty member in her home, sitting around a campfire and singing songs. A healthy anthropology involves a flourishing sense of festivity—but also one that resists mere indulgence, or bacchanalian excess, or worse, destructive alcoholism. Fostering a healthy, joyous festivity should be a central goal of every office of student life. St. Philip Neri is the best guide here.

All of this sounds vague and overconfident, as if we could just tick off these bullet points and everything in student life would be fine—no student would ever stagger back to a dorm drunk, and no young man would ever again smash something. I don’t have any such illusions. Part of getting the anthropology right is acknowledging that achieving true liberty is a slow, patient process for almost all of us. St. John Henry Newman once said that “the original sin of the heretic is impatience,” and those of us in student life ought especially to take counsel from him on this. It takes a lifetime to become liberally educated, and especially in a world so confused about human anthropology, our students may simply take longer these days to begin to see things right side up about the human person—and then learn how to act upon that knowledge. That’s not always comforting to a dean of students who sits down on Monday morning to review the weekend’s conduct incidents, but it is reality, and that, rather than fantasy, is always the better place from which to begin. 

Gregory Roper is associate professor of English and dean of students at the University of Dallas. This essay is adapted from an address given at the 22nd annual conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. 

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