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Open for Debate

Places of formation: Cultivating open-mindedness amongst university students

30 December 2019

Bethan Willis                             Ed Brooks

In the ongoing discussions around Brexit our relationship to place, near and far, has become a central element of our political discourse. This has perhaps fed into the burgeoning interest in the civic role of the university, its relationship and responsibilities to place, to the particular towns and cities in which each university is situated, and its role in serving common goods (see UPP Civic University Commission Report 2019). In Newcastle, the first Dean of Place has been appointed with a focus on ensuring the university makes a positive contribution to the economic, social and cultural well-being of the North East and other universities are following suit.

Whilst the current dialogue around the role of universities has focused on their ability to contribute to places as economic and cultural benefactors, might there may be a more dynamic two-way relationship at play? Can places play a positive role in the formation of students and contribute to the cultivation of open-mindedness?

Over several years, The Oxford Character Project has run programmes of character formation for postgraduate students at the University of Oxford and other institutions in the UK, Europe and Hong Kong. At the heart of our practical work is a leadership and character development programme that draws together diverse cohorts of students, selected through competitive application, to participate in an extra-curricular learning community. Over the course of a year students explore the challenges of leadership and the role that virtues and character can play in responding to them, seeking not only to analyse what good leadership is but “to become good” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2.2). We focus on virtues that are particularly important in emerging adulthood and leadership development (honesty, humility, service, gratitude, wisdom, vocation) and follow a methodology that incorporates seven strategies of character cultivation: 1) habituation through practice; 2) reflection on personal experience; 3) engagement with virtuous exemplars; 4) dialogue that increases virtue literacy; 5) awareness of situational variables; 6) moral reminders; and 7) friendship and mutual accountability (see Brooks et al. 2019).

The impact of the programme has been assessed through a series of mixed-method, longitudinal, and controlled studies. By the time they leave the programme, students show small but consistent, improvements in a number of the focal virtues (Brant et al. 2019). What is more, analysis of qualitative data suggests that the programme has also had an effect on students’ open-mindedness, their willingness and ability to seriously consider different perspectives. Students noted that they have “become less vain and more open about listening and inviting [others’] opinions” and that the intentional exploration of diverse perspectives through the programme “helped me become more reflective, and more humble, about my own thoughts.” While open-mindedness was not a specific focus of the programme, 51% of students reported that they had developed habits or attitudes of open-mindedness.

How might we explain this effect? One reason for it may be a positive connection between moral and intellectual virtues such that cultivating moral virtues contributes to the cultivation of intellectual virtues (Roberts & Wood 2007). Another is the relation between clusters of virtues. The cultivation of gratitude may have contributed to a “spiral effect” (Kruse et al. 2014) increasing moral and intellectual humility.

Investigating our qualitative data highlights what may be a third factor: the importance of place. In order to cultivate formational friendships between students and communicate the permeability between university studies and “ordinary” life, we have paid purposeful attention to the spaces and places we use for programme activities. We host discussions in relaxed common rooms rather than formal teaching spaces; we take students outside of Oxford to focus on the expectations, pressures and incentives of students’ future career paths; and we host dinners in a family home on the edge of the city centre. Students frequently mentioned the importance of these places of meeting and the type of spaces that were created. They suggested that the places of meeting contributed to a way of relating and speaking which was not the norm for postgraduate student encounters elsewhere within the university.

Our study is small and these findings are only indicative of what may be an important theme. However, they do add weight to the contention of Wendell Berry and others that in engaging more deeply with our places, we encounter our limitations; cultivate a love of the objects of our knowledge; and move from ‘epistemologies of abstraction’ to ‘epistemologies of care’ (Baker and Bilbro 2017, 155).

If virtuous habits are intrinsically related to virtuous habitation (Baker and Bilbro 2017, 94), might closer attention to the spaces of learning in higher education, and efforts to connect students more deeply to the places in which they live, learn and are formed be an important way in which open-mindedness can be cultivated amongst those who will take up positions of responsibility in our society in the future?



Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean Ethics (2nd ed.; T. Irwin, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett.

Baker, J. and Bilbro, J. 2017. Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Brant, J., Lamb, M., Burdett, E., and Brooks, E. 2019. Cultivating virtue in postgraduates: An empirical study of the Oxford Global Leadership Initiative. Journal of Moral Education.

Brooks, E., Brant, J. and Lamb, M. 2019. How can universities cultivate leaders of character? Insights from a leadership and character development program at the University of Oxford. International Journal of Ethics Education.

Kruse, E., Chancellor, J., Ruberton, P.M., and Lyubomirsky, S. 2014. An upward spiral between gratitude and humility. Social Psychological and Personality Science 5(7): 805–814.

Roberts, R.C. and Wood, W.J. 2007. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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