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Personal and Social Responsibility for a World Lived in Common
"Conscience does make cowards of us all," Hamlet says while expounding on his personal existential crisis. Lying at the heart of one of Shakespeare's most famous (and most taught) plays, this statement confronts many college students just as they are struggling with their own questions about the meaning of existence. Its gist is that a preference for the life one knows compels one to continue living. But its thrust is that in consciousness lies inaction.
The sentiment will be familiar to many college students, for the first time encountering overwhelming details about the enormous challenges facing them, their country, and their planet. Compelled to ask big questions, they may find small actions insufficient, and may, like Hamlet, feel paralyzed by uncertainty. Hamlet got over this sentiment, with tragic consequences. The challenge for today's colleges and universities is to help students likewise move beyond paralysis, but in optimism rather than vengeance, empowered by consciousness to take responsibility for their actions' consequences in the world.
AAC&U's Core Commitments project took up this cause as it developed tools for colleges and universities to teach their students to practice the five dimensions of personal and social responsibility, which Caryn McTighe Musil describes in this issue of Diversity & Democracy. This issue explores with particular zest those dimensions that most closely align with the goals of building a diverse and inclusive world: "contributing to a larger community," "taking seriously the perspectives of others," and "developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning and action." Students' capacities in these areas will be indispensable as they prepare to contribute to a world lived in common, and our authors' contributions reveal ways to make higher education a stage for that world.
Fortunately, very few college students will find answers to their questions about the meaning of life by following in Hamlet's footsteps. If Hamlet is a hero who conflates conscience and consciousness, and whose actions ultimately display little regard for either, our students must be modest heroes whose consciousness and consciences are tools for global change. This issue of Diversity & Democracy challenges colleges and universities to help students recognize their role in the interconnected world around them so conscience grants them courage rather than cowardice.
Kathryn Peltier Campbell is editor of Diversity & Democracy.