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Joe O’Shea, University of Oxford

2011 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Panelist

Joe O'SheaA Rhodes and Truman Scholar, Joe O’Shea is currently a DPhil candidate in Education at the University of Oxford. He holds an MSc in comparative social policy from Oxford, and a B.A. in philosophy and social science from The Florida State University. As an undergraduate, Joe served as the student body president and was named to the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team. Outside of academia, Joe has worked to start primary health and education initiatives in the US and Sub-Saharan Africa, an organization for international student service-based exchanges, and a civil service training university in America.


Professional Title: DPhil Candidate in Education

Institution: University of Oxford

How has a background in philosophy influenced your views on education, ethics, and social justice?

The most important contribution of my background in philosophy was in helping me learn how to think deeply through issues. Philosophical inquiry cultivates an ability to examine a topic from multiple perspectives, to engage in thought experiments, and to move to the abstract so that one is better able to assess the merits of a position. In my everyday life, and in developing my positions in ethics and social philosophy, this ability helps me to think on a fundamental level about what type of society we want, why we come together in communities in the first place, what types of opportunities should these communities afford to their members, and what responsibilities to each other we may have. In the midst of a culture that often presents otherwise, philosophy has helped me to develop a more rich conception of human flourishing and goods.  It is toward an aim of human flourishing for all, tempered by limits of paternalism, that I often measure and evaluate our public policies.

What sort of programs specifically in moral development have you learned about or participated in while you have been in England?  How do you find these programs different than those in the US?

In my experiences thus far, higher education institutions in the United Kingdom often take a less explicit and prescriptive approach to moral development than institutions in the United States.  Institutions there seem to largely leave moral development to the natural social interactions students have in the university community and society, opting to place more explicit attention to developing the intellectual virtues and training in a specific discipline for a degree. Students, however, do organize into groups to volunteer, but these groups do not have moral formation as an explicit goal, although moral development can, of course, be an ancillary benefit.

That being said, there does seem to be growing attention to moral and civic development of young people in universities, and I have attended a conference on this issue. At the primary and secondary levels of education, there is a required course on citizenship; there are similar programs to the United States, such as Scouting and religious activities; and they do some unique programs, like the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which is quite popular.

Can you describe the Gap Year program—about which you wrote in the Journal of College and Character (May 2010)—along with its strengths and drawbacks?

The Project Trust gap year program is unique and among the most prominent in the UK: a twelve month international volunteer gap year for students before university.  It’s long term and allows volunteers to integrate into the local community in professional roles as teachers or social workers.  At the same time, it’s not prescriptive about how one should change over the year or think about the countries they are in, so it offers a great deal of freedom for exploration and reflection. Often, these gap years change the ways volunteers make meaning in the world, developing many of them, I would argue, more than a first year of university—and at a cheaper cost. Although it is debatable how much there could be, as time out of formal education, gap years often don’t have forced reflection and study in a more academic light as you would find in service-learning.  But these students have their time and studies in university to build on their gap year experiences.

Despite the potential high impact and benefits of a gap year, they can also be high stress and high challenge, so they’re not for everyone.  There are risks sending vulnerable young people overseas, especially if they have any history of mental health issues.

Why did you decide to work for health and education initiatives in Africa? Can you describe some of the most significant experiences you have had in working for these initiatives?

There were a few reasons. One, on a philosophical level, I thought that I ought to be doing more to help others in need, and there was great need in sub-Saharan Africa.  Second, I had not really travelled outside the United States, and I yearned to have new experiences—to be somewhere different—to learn about a “distant’ place and see a different worldview. Third, I thought that these initiatives, as student based ones, could help cultivate the characters and intellects of the younger college students involved, as well as igniting more of their interest in serving others and international development.

Please describe the civic service training university in the US for which you have worked.  How can it be beneficial for students and society?

I have worked to try and establish the U.S. Public Service Academy.  Currently a bill in Congress, the U.S. Public Service Academy would be an undergraduate institution devoted to developing civilian leaders for the public sector. Modeled on the military academies, the Academy would offer four years of tuition-free education in exchange for five years of civilian service following graduation. Its missionwill be to educate, develop, and inspire civilian leaders who have the character, intellect, and experience necessary to serve the nation honorably and effectively, and who are committed to devoting their lives to public service.  In doing so, the Academy aims to develop a new generation of top-quality civilian leaders and will help transform the way Americans perceive, prepare for, and pursue public service.

What advice do you have for students today in searching for meaning and fulfillment in their lives?

Each student’s journey to find meaning is going to be unique. However, I do think there are particular experiences which can be tremendously helpful.  I generally recommend students to do some international volunteering in a developing country; the longer the better. In doing so, you’ll not only expand the range of experiences you have to understand the world and make choices about the type of person you want to be, but you’ll most likely cultivate dispositions toward the activity that often gives people meaning: improving the lives of others.  Research shows that people who report high levels of well-being have fidelity to a purpose and make a positive difference in the lives of others—changing the life of another for the better.  In other words, serving yourself as your highest aim (e.g., pursuit of material wealth) will not leave you fulfilled, but serving others in your everyday life might.

Take as many opportunities as you can to try new things, serve others, and surround yourself with people—both peers and those older than you—that demonstrate virtues you lack.  You will do well in college by working hard—working hard combined with a rich and balanced life of extra-curricular activities, including, as the Warden of Rhodes House in Oxford said in his remarks to the incoming Rhodes Scholars, “the purposeless enjoyment of friendships and many moments of idle reflection.  Reflect about the things that really matter to you in life, the deep passions or inner drivers, the aspirations or the callings, that will motivate you in a life of leadership and service; the aptitudes you have and how to give them best play; and the weaknesses you have and how to overcome or at least manage them.” Try to place your interests in a larger project of society and challenge yourself to think how the world will be a better place because of your efforts.  Finding the purpose and role your life’s project may have in society can help give your work meaning.

What advice do you have for faculty and student affairs administrators in helping to guide students to pursue meaning in their lives?

Culture matters a lot, so work to create a culture on campus which encourages students to question what they want from life, develop their characters, and to serve others. Listen to students’ desires and passions, and help them think through ways these passions can fit into a larger life project that contributes to society.  Don’t be overly prescriptive, but help provide opportunities, such as international volunteering or residential communities, for students to cultivate sentiments and dispositions toward meaningful things, like community life and deep friendships.  Be a role model for young people in your everyday actions, and don’t be afraid to have a pastoral relationship with students—one that need not be paternalistic—but that engenders a genuine mutual respect, inspiration, and perhaps even a friendship.