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Art and the Possibilities of Higher Education

Supporting the Profession Student Affairs Partnering with Academic Affairs Faculty Graduate
November 4, 2022 Peter Mather Ohio University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2022

Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Pete Mather serves as the senior associate editor for the Journal of College and Character and is a professor in higher education and student affairs at Ohio University. He is providing this column in Connexions based on his 2021-2022 academic year sabbatical. During his sabbatical, Pete has been interviewing innovative thinkers about the future of student engagement in higher education, reading on the topic of higher education reform, and has been on a soul-searching mission to discover ways of encouraging best models of practice for today's and tomorrow's students. This column focuses on how higher education faculty and administrators can promote moral development in an evolving higher education environment.

Please see his reflection/adventure/sabbatical blog here

One of the outcomes of my sabbatical adventure was a growing appreciation for art and poetry. As I hiked on mountain trails, viewed the beautiful colors of great Southwestern canyons, and saw the ocean break against the rocks on the Oregon coast, I was moved to read poetry and even try my hand at writing it for the first time in my life. What was it about those places that cultivated an urge to explore the creative arts? Importantly, why haven’t I had that same urge in my everyday life at the university?

 The Industrial Age Mess

I believe in the virtue of university life. The opportunity to cultivate vital knowledge and wisdom in advancing the best of humanity has provided me a sense of meaning and purpose for nearly four decades. However, I believe the venerable mission of higher education and my own attempts to contribute to it are frequently drowned out by the noise of what has come to be the business of the university. What I refer to as the business of the university is often in competition with virtuous practices that foster transformational learning. As we gather in meetings but also in classroom settings, shadows are cast on the loftiest promise of our work by a focus on antiquated business and pedagogical conventions—practices born out of an industrial age mindset of control, efficiency, and productivity. None of these is problematic in its own right, but they have become idols, obscuring the liberating and transformative promise of our communities of learning.

So, back to the creative arts and the beauty of the outdoors: While management plays an important role in public parks and seashores, it never is revered above the beauty and spirit of these places. Perhaps the beauty of the natural world is just too magnificent. If we hope to bolster passion and creativity among students, encouraging them to thrive in today’s world and address daunting global concerns, we must help them access the magnificence of the environment and of our inner landscape.

When I ended my sabbatical adventure, I returned to campus with a commitment to continue exploring and embracing my inner life and to explore ways to open students’ inner landscapes at the same time. I am convinced that the form of my classes must push the boundaries of what are considered to be conventional teaching practices. Many of my peers in higher education are taking pedagogical risks; I am a novice at this, and occasionally stumble in my efforts. But, major social issues such as threats to democracy and the environmental have called me to explore new ways of facilitating learning. Furthermore, the external crises created by bureaucracies and other products of 20th Century management science, which is very much part of our fiber today, are mirrored in the crisis of our inner lives, marked notably by the global mental health crisis. Whether the inner or outer landscape, educators’ work has taken on incredible significance.

The destruction of the planet as well as the anxiety and depression experienced extensively in the higher education community, by both staff and students, are spawned, at least in part, by our adherence to the industrial age ethics of power and control. As we work toward solutions, we would do well to consider the words of Einstein, who famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.”

Creative Connections

One of the approaches to navigating our way out of the crisis, I believe, is employment of creative arts. Poetry is a methodological counterpoint to linear and reductionist thinking and provides a form of liberation in the midst of institutional constraints.

I am currently teaching a student development theory class to master’s students in higher education, and have been experimenting with creative ways for students to explore their hidden potential and that of their students. Poetry and art present interesting alternatives to lectures and application-oriented case studies. Accordingly, I have been introducing poetic verse into the learning space as a complement to theories of development that often present overly simplistic and reductionist models for understanding college students.

In order to surface a discussion on the student (read, human) experience in my class, I assigned the poem The Woodcarver, by Chuang Tzu, which is discussed in Parker Palmer’s 2004 book, A Hidden Wholeness. The poem conveys a tale about a woodcarver who is commissioned by a monarch to create a work of art—in particular, a bell stand. Through poetic verse, the woodcarver explains that they entered into a period of fasting in order to find the bell stand within themselves and in nature rather than focusing on what the one commissioning it expected. Only through a deep search into their inner life, removed from the pressure of the king’s expectations, could the artist fulfill their promise. Through our class discussion, students highlighted their own collective thirst to find themselves amid their hectic lives and work. From the standpoint of student development theory, the poem fostered a visceral connection to their own journeys involving identity exploration and their movement toward autonomy and purpose.

In earlier blogs I have focused on the importance of fostering wholeness and resonance among students. I am grateful for the many students and colleagues in my orbit who are longing for spaces that invite them and me into deepening connections with themselves and with the awesome potential they have to create beautiful and transformative communities in classrooms, campus greens, organizational spaces and perhaps even business meetings. In the context of today’s world and contemporary higher education, we do need good managers, but the highest calling is reserved for those who are willing to foster connections to something good business practices alone can never provide.


Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. Jossey-Bass.