“Why Are You Doing That Research?”

I am often asked about how I became interested in a certain line of research. Recently, people have asked me why, at the age of 70, I embarked on a very large empirical study of higher education in the United States.

One answer: I’ve always been interested in education. As a young child, I thought that one day I would teach classes to children of every age. I’ve stayed in school all my life. But for the first half of my scholarly career, I carried out studies in developmental psychology and neuropsychology, without a particular focus on education.

That situation changed for two reasons. First of all, my theory of multiple intelligences, never of particular interest to psychologists, proved of great interest to educators. (One inevitably notices what others notice.) Second, I took a teaching job at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. My students were largely involved in education but not in higher education.

As a result, if you look at my published writings in education from 1985 to 2015, they have focused almost entirely on K-12 education.

But while my research veered toward pre-collegiate education, my colleagues and I were also undertaking a major study of professions in American life. That study, known initially as The Good Work Project, took place over 10 years. It yielded a variety of publications and toolkits, now collated under the label of The Good Project.

In that research, I and my colleagues—Wendy Fischman and Lynn Barendsen—were disturbed by a particular finding. Young people whom we interviewed wanted to do “good work” but felt they could not afford to do it at that point in their lives. They wanted to be successful and well-off, and so they, like their peers, had to be willing to cut corners, or so they thought. They told us that one day, once they had achieved their material goals, then they would be doing good work and modeling such work for other people.

We wondered whether we could do something with college students to orient them to the importance of carrying out good work from the start—work that is technically excellent, personally engaging, and—most important—carried out in an ethical way.

Accordingly, we looked for opportunities where we could work with college students on these issues. The first opportunity arose at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. There, a colleague, Sandy Maisel, invited us to teach a course in ethics, along with the nearby Institute for Global Ethics. With a set of engaged students, we reviewed many of the ethical dilemmas that arise in work life. The course worked out well.

The following year, I had the opportunity to carry out a similar, briefer course at Amherst College with the then-president, Tony Marx.

While carrying out these experimental courses, we had also been speaking to educators at Harvard College—much closer to home!

In talks with the Freshman Dean’s Office, particularly with Dean Tom Dingman and his associate Katie Steele, we began to design a course for Harvard freshman which we ultimately called “Reflecting on Your Life.” That course, now in its 11th year, continues to this day.

Especially important was the collegiality of Dick Light, a long-time friend and colleague and, unlike me, a genuine expert in higher education. Dick was a full collaborator in the design and execution of “Reflecting on Your Life.”

Over the years, Dick and I spoke frequently and at length about what it takes to make the most of the college experience—and to do so in a way that makes sense to you but also to others in your present and future worlds. That, in a nutshell, is the core idea of “Reflecting on Your Life.” As a result of these conversations, Dick and I wondered whether it might be opportune to carry out an empirical study of higher education in the United States today.

We were struck by two phenomena. On the one hand, nearly every month, new books appear—often rather depressing in tone—about the state of higher education in America. On the other hand, most of these books have far more “attitude” and considerably more recommendations than they have data carefully gathered and thoroughly analyzed.

Over the course of many months and many conversations, there arose a project, which we initially called “Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century.” Now in its fifth year, the project has carried out close to 2000 interviews on 10 deliberately disparate campuses. We speak to all the major stakeholders on each campus. In our interviews, we ask participants, particularly students, about their perspectives on excellence, ethics, and engagement. These virtues relate to the college experience, in both academic and campus life.

Soon we will turn our attention to making sense of these in-depth interviews. In the meantime, Dick has been promoted to Senior Research Advisor, and Wendy Fischman, who worked with me initially on The Good Work Project, is now Senior Project Manager. Over the next months and years, we will report many of our impressions and findings on this blog, Life-Long Learning.

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