Rules versus Education

By Marc Resnick
Salem State University banned cigarettes on 100% of the campus.  Not just inside buildings, but outside as well.  In general, I am in favor of smoking bans in public places because of the well-researched evidence against second hand smoke, but I am also a strong supporter of the libertarian perspective that when someone is only affecting themselves, they should be able to do pretty much anything they want.  So on private property I strongly support the right to smoke, even though I would personally recommend to individuals to quit for their own health.  And I encourage health insurers to charge for the externalities that smokers create.
But this brings up a great illustration of the tradeoff between rules and education – the same one we deal with in the workplace every day.  When you impose a rule (assuming it is a well thought through and appropriate rule), train employees effectively and enforce the rule thoroughly, employees should follow it.  100% of the time even.  Well, maybe 99.999% of the time.
On the other hand, we can educate employees so that they have the background to make the correct choice for themselves.  Again, assuming what we want them to do really is the best thing, a thorough education of the system behind their job would allow every employee to make good decisions.  We can provide cheat sheets for common or difficult situations, but as guidelines, not policies.  This has a totally different impact on what kinds of employees you need to hire, how you train them, how you motivate them, and the results in productivity, performance and retention.
In this particular case, this distinction is more important.  College is a special place.  I have been on campuses almost my whole life as a student, researcher, and professor.  I see college as having several important roles for students in addition to teaching them courses and giving them vocational expertise through research and clubs.  IMHO, we are also supposed to be giving them life skills.  Unfortunately, a lot of students get to college without these having developed fully so we need to teach them.  Some of the reason for this is that the brain has certain areas that don’t develop until you are 18-20 years old (e.g. impulse control).  And some of it is failure of high school, community, and family to do it.
So I am torn.  How do we best teach college students to make adult decisions and impulse control?  Is it by TELLING them what to do and ENFORCING it (a smoking ban)?  Or is it giving them the freedom to make mistakes but trying to also give them the tools to make the smart decision on their own?  It’s about more than teaching them not to smoke.  It’s about teaching critical thinking skills, independence, responsibility, and other requirements of adulthood.  Is a ban the best way to achieve this?

There is also an interesting legal twist.  The university owns the sidewalks, but the city owns the streets.  So there is a loophole – you can still smoke if you are standing in the street.  I wonder what this teaches.  Finding loopholes is a good thing to become good at?  Rules were made to be circumvented?  Impulse control is not necessary because you can always find a way out