At the start and end of every school year, convocation and commencement speeches exhort incoming freshmen to use their education to make an impact—on their campuses, in their communities, and in the world beyond. But too rarely do we stop to question what kind of impact we want these students to make.
Over the past year and a half, we have conducted a pilot study at Stanford University to learn more about how college students think about ethics. Our work is part of a broader research endeavor, the National Ethics Project, to understand the state of undergraduate ethics education: How does this generation define ethics? What kinds of ethical dilemmas do they face, and who do they turn to for help navigating these challenges? Are Stanford's educational offerings about ethics even relevant to them? Throughout our work we employed methods from human-centered design and took an ethnographic approach to our in-depth interviews, so that we could prioritize students' voices and experiences.
We'll be blunt: We're worried about what we heard.
One of our biggest concerns is that students seem to value a troubling notion of impact premised on quantity over quality, one that conflates success with sheer reach and scale. As one computer science major told us: "Impact might be the greatest number of people I can reach. I work on this app [that] gets pushed to millions of people, and I've changed millions of people's lives." But what if the lives of those millions of people are not changed for the better?
We didn't set out to ask students about impact. But students brought it up in nearly every conversation we had about ethics, revealing to us how central the idea is to their sense of self, purpose, and morality—and not always for the good.
To be sure, some students talked about the hope of making an impact as a positive, motivating force behind their aim of "making the world a better place [and] changing people's lives for the better." But for many of the students we spoke with, the concept weighs heavily on them simply because of the scale at which they feel they are supposed to operate. Many of these undergraduates feel they must achieve "greatness," be "high-impact," and become "an innovator" in order to be successful; they also tend to think that they have to do so as soon as possible because they're "on a countdown" starting at age 19.
One student traced this pressure to the role models he and his peers see put before them: "Every year at [new student orientation], we bring in some tech billionaire who is held up like the paragon of what you can achieve," he lamented.
We heard, too, about how this singular drive for wide-scale impact often influences what students think is worth studying. If you don't major in computer science, one student told us, you may be curtailing your potential impact to just "changing one person's life," compared to the millions you could reach via coding skills.
By contrast, a humanities major told us she is deeply discomforted by the "how do we fix gentrification with an app?" mindset that she finds prevalent on campus. As she sees it, people's lives and problems are wrongly being reduced to engineering exercises under the pretense of ethical action.
Students often disagreed about what ethical action entails, and we welcomed spirited debate about that question. But what is most troubling to us is how this concern for impact at scale seems to be loosening some students' senses of morality. We had this worry, for example, when students questioned whether an ethical lapse that only affects Stanford peers even counts as such. We heard it too when students told us, given the pressure they're under, that behaving ethically can be a social and career liability they can't always afford. "I can't play this nicey-nice game anymore," one student confessed.
It's true that Stanford undergraduates are hardly a representative sample of college students. With an admissions rate of under 5 percent, a sticker price of nearly $70,000 per year, and the gravitational pull on campus to become the next Silicon Valley "disrupter," the Stanford undergraduate experience is unique. But given the university's outsized role in technological innovation, and how that innovation is compelling us to consider anew the values that are foundational to our social and civic lives, Stanford undergrads' goals, anxieties, and ideas about ethics will inevitably shape the future we will all inhabit.
There is clearly a need at Stanford to rethink what impact means, given the concept's distorting effect on students' priorities and ethics. There is also a broader need, on all campuses, to be more intentional about ethics education. Ethics requirements on U.S. college campuses have proliferated in recent years, yet we know very little about what ethics education is accomplishing, and how institutional messaging about ethics, students' needs, and instructors' methods are aligned—or not.
The National Ethics Project aims to address these gaps. In particular, our pilot study has revealed ways that ethics programming could be more meaningful to students. One simple but powerful possibility: Talk with students about your own moments of ethical struggle and even failure. When students told us that they turn almost exclusively to close friends for help navigating ethical dilemmas, we thought about how to approximate those sorts of intimate conversations with adult mentors. So we hosted small "fireside chats" about ethics with beloved faculty and staff, who shared with candor and vulnerability some of the ethical conflicts they've faced. After each of those events, students told us that hearing trusted adults talk openly about ethical dilemmas, in all of their messiness, helped them understand that these quandaries are seldom "solved"; rather, they often entail ongoing struggle and sacrifice, and leave moral residue—even when all actors proceed with the best of intentions.
This is a significant mindset shift that, we hope, can begin to poke holes in the simplistic ideas we heard about what it means to have impact in the world. It is also, ironically, evidence of the paradoxical power of small-scale impact, that such enormous potential lies within such intimate spaces.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
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How Gen Z Presents a Challenge to Traditional Arts Organizations
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How We Can Teach Gen Z a Better Kind of Media Literacy
Young people's ability to navigate the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Read more
How to Make College More Relevant for Gen Z
With a nimbler approach to the curriculum, we can help this generation develop their ideals into real-world solutions. Read more