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  • The Activity of Meaning Making:A Holistic Perspective on College Student Development
  • Marcia B. Baxter Magolda (bio)

The student affairs profession embraced student development theory as its guiding philosophy in the 1970s, a move articulated explicitly in Brown's (1972) Student Development in Tomorrow's Higher Education-A Return to the Academy. Brown reiterated student affairs' commitment to the whole student, a commitment outlined as early as 1937 in the Student Personnel Point of View (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 1989), and argued for collaboration among student affairs and faculty to promote students' development. Although the profession adopted student development theory as a philosophy to augment its whole student stance, theorists focused on separate strands of theory that complicated emphasizing the whole student.

Knefelkamp, Widick, and Parker (1978) synthesized the student development research literature into five clusters, noting that they "did not find, nor could we create, the comprehensive model of student development" (p. xi). The five clusters-psychosocial theories, cognitive developmental theories, maturity models, typology models, and person-environment interaction models-have remained as separate lines of theorizing through much of the student development literature. Although Knefelkamp and her colleagues portrayed all five clusters as valuable, research tended to further each cluster with insufficient attention to their intersections. Research in the psychological tradition tended to focus on the person; research in the sociological tradition focused on the environment. Literature on student success, outcomes, and learning is often separated from literature on student development. To complicate matters further, research within clusters to create theory in the context of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation typically resulted in separate silos rather than interconnected possibilities. Although the student affairs profession moved to explicitly embrace the link between development and learning with the Student Learning Imperative (American College Personnel Association, 1994) and Learning Reconsidered (Keeling, 2004), the learning and student development literatures are rarely integrated (Wildman & Baxter Magolda, 2008). Thus, higher education in general and student affairs in particular lack a holistic, theoretical perspective to promote the learning and development of the whole student.

Constructing a holistic theoretical perspective requires focusing on intersections rather than separate constructs. Robert Kegan, a pioneer in moving toward a holistic theoretical perspective, advocated "moving from the dichotomous choice to the dialectical context which brings the poles into being in the first place" (1982, p. ix, italics in original). He argued that the questions

"Which is to be taken as the master in personality, affect or cognition?" or "Which should be the central focus, the individual or the social?" or "Which should be the primary theater of investigation, the intrapsychic or the interpersonal?" or even "Which is to be taken as the [End Page 621] more powerful developmental framework the psychoanalytic or the cognitive-structural?"

(pp. viii-ix)

should be reconstructed to focus on the context rather than the polarities. He offered the construct of meaning making as the context that would enable "a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the psychological and the social, between the past and the present, and between emotion and thought" (1982, p. 15).

Another arena to focus on intersections revolves around addressing tensions and intersections between existing theoretical frameworks and new ones generated from specific populations. Nesting new ideas generated from particular student populations in larger concepts, critiquing and extending existing theory rather than ignoring it, and blending particulars and existing overarching ideas would promote integration toward a holistic perspective. The intersections of learning and development are another major area in which integration is warranted. Conducting contemporary research in ways that explore these tensions and intersections is necessary to construct a holistic theoretical perspective that depicts the complexity and variability of development.

In this article, I briefly trace the academic traditions that have formed the major body of student development literature, highlighting the evolution of separate rather than integrated constructs. I then summarize Kegan's conception of a metapsychology that integrates many of these separate lines of research. Next, I offer a holistic framework for student development theory based on contemporary research that takes a holistic approach. I conclude by outlining the kind of future research that is needed to develop and refine an integrated, holistic theoretical foundation for promoting student...


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