Perhaps regretting his decision to spend all eight semesters in Columbia housing, an old suitemate once took a “semester abroad in New York.” I loved the idea. Flush with classes completed, books read and lectures heard, he embarked on an adventure of dislocation. Registering for the minimum amount of credits, he did everything else he could think of in the pursuit of that ineffable sense of purpose we all seek.
He found it. A semester in the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe enhanced not only his sense of the other on stage but understanding of others off it. He visited one museum a week. He played the piano for the first time in years, exploring talents and abilities he did not know he had.
He—and others who watched the idea take root—came to see that there is an element of the human experience that cannot be felt in the classroom. Intellect’s needs can be satisfied, but the calls for empathy, consciousness, discipline—all elements of character, perhaps—were left unmet. Eventually, the rest of us sought out such unconventional experiences: performances on campus, the occasional Rangers game for the spirit, and a day of service blocks away or study among people of faith for the refinement of our characters.
Why, the thinking went, do we hold ourselves to the highest standards of intellectual inquiry but lower our standards for developing good character? Good character defies precise definition. But it is no less critical in the living of a useful life.
For many—myself included—being a part of a religious community on campus instills a sense of discipline and moral ethos. Others experience that same growth, athletes spending time at Baker Field or activists perpetually traveling to Washington D.C. immediately come to mind.
We often do our growing far away from campus. The prevailing wisdom seems to suggest that character is best built beyond the classroom.
But in that pursuit of meaning it becomes too easy for us to profess the need for that semester abroad to make us “better people.” Columbia has taught me that inherent to our intellectual development, right here, is the development of good character. That’s true of discipline—the I’m going to wake up for 9 a.m. class and sit in uncomfortable lecture hall chairs to “build character,” character. But it’s also true of the “good character” that spurs righteous indignation and a steadfast moral compass. Character is best learned in the books we read, and it should be as central a goal as any intellectual achievement. Intellect and character are, in a sense, one and the same.
You can’t help but acquire good character when acquiring intellectual depth. Character—sometimes meaning making mature, informed decisions—demands discernment and critical thinking, which are acquired most completely within our coursework.
A few weeks ago, Annie Murphy Paul wrote a New York Times piece, “Your Brain on Fiction,” that revealed the value of the texts we read. The research she quoted said what we’ve known all along: the brain perceives little difference between reading and experiencing an event. We identify with a character, his sadness, his joys and his challenges. And if we have read well—with the intention to develop good character just as we intend to refine our intellects—we come to recognize those same experiences in our own.
The question is not whether Columbia should or could seek to develop character—it must, and it does. But do Columbians seek good character with intention, as they pursue wisdom and depth of understanding?
Character is the most vulnerable of attributes—the first to be challenged by the ethical questions awaiting us—but it must be tied to our intellectual exploration. When that semester abroad becomes a life abroad—perhaps adrift—character is the only thing that matters.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. He is president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel and chair of Chaplain’s Council.