Morality and Other "Big Questions" in Liberal Education
The following remarks were made to the Mid-Atlantic Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Pennsylvania on October 15, 2005.
When the invitation to speak to this gathering of Phi Beta Kappa came, I was honored and happy to accept. But when I hung up the phone I found myself asking, “Did I get it right? Phi Beta Kappa wants to know whether moral education has a place in liberal education—Phi Beta Kappa, whose motto, if I remember correctly, is Philosophia Biou Kubernetes, “Philosophy is the helmsman of life,” has some doubts about this? And they want me to speak at the University of Pennsylvania, whose motto, if I remember correctly, is leges sine moribus vanae, “Laws don’t work without a moral basis.” Did I get it right? Has it come to this?
Yes, it has, and some people would say, “Thank Heavens! Let’s forget this high-minded clap-trap and get on with business.” A recent national survey showed that “since 1989, faculty have become less interested in [developing] the character” of their students. It’s not surprising, then, that when students were asked if they felt they had made substantial progress in developing their values while in college, positive responses in 1996 showed a marked decline from 1987. This was true in every sector of higher education. Even in liberal arts colleges, the numbers went down by 6 percent.
Students, moreover, do not seem to be losing sleep, or party time, over this. Every year the Higher Education Research Center at UCLA asks a big sample of undergraduates questions that include: “How important do you think it is to be very well off financially?” and “How important is it for you to develop a meaningful philosophy of life?” A generation ago, Meaningful Philosophy consistently beat Mammon by a healthy margin. But the lines crossed in about 1979 and since then, for twenty five years, Mammon has steadily clobbered poor Philosophy. That’s fine with Stanley Fish, who, in a recent op-ed piece entitled “Aim Low,” attacked some of the gurus of higher education (notably, Ernest Boyer) and their insistence that college education should “go beyond the developing of intellectual and technical skills and…mastery of a scholarly domain. It should include the competence to act in the world and the judgment to do so wisely.”
Stanley Fish, true to form, has great fun with this, as with all forms of academic pretentiousness. The advocates of fashioning good and civic-minded citizens seem to assume, he points out, that students now routinely achieve such mastery of intellectual and scholarly skills. Alas, no, Fish reminds us. Nor are they likely to do so if they spend more time “going beyond” intellectual mastery to what Fish thinks is a “Mish mash of self-help platitudes, vulgar multiculturalism, (is there any other kind? ), and a soft-core version of 60s radicalism complete with the injunction…to ‘love one another right now.’”
His “main objection to moral and civic education… is not that it is a bad idea…but that it is an unworkable idea.” Duke University, for example, where Stanley taught for many years, tried to “fashion” “good and moral citizens…by a curriculum,” but can produce “no evidence whatsoever that its graduates emerged with a highly developed sense of civic responsibility….”
I’ve taught at Duke too, and I think Stanley is right—a couple of course requirements in moral and ethical matters do not “fashion” good and moral citizens. But does that mean that we should forget about the moral dimension of education and not distract ourselves from what many people think is the real work, dealing with the abysmal ignorance of American youth, the mis-educated 12th graders who, as Thomas Friedman writes, “recently performed behind the international average for 21 countries in math and science?”
That, I believe would be a terrible mistake. Let me tell you why. Over the past year the Teagle Foundation has been exploring two intersecting questions. One is what’s behind the apparent upswing in interest in, and commitment to, religion on American campuses; the other we loosely phrased as “Whatever Happened to the ‘Big Questions’?” We never defined “Big Questions,” but we gave as examples such questions: “Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I going to do with my life? What are my values? Is there such a thing as evil? What does it mean to be human? How can I understand suffering and death? What obligations do I have to other people? What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy? What makes work, or a life, meaningful and satisfying?” We were asking, in other words, not about a “meaningful philosophy of life” or “moral values” but about a much wider set of concerns, ones traditionally very close to the heart of a liberal education.
What we found was this:
Liberal arts colleges (and many others including some research universities) say on their websites or catalogues that they are deeply concerned with such questions.
Over the past generation, the humanities and related social sciences have paid great attention to one of these questions—the “Who am I?” question—approaching it through the study of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and sometimes social class and ethnicity. Courses have been developed, curricula revised, programs or departments established, scholarly journals created. In this respect, American higher education has been transformed over the past generation.
In addition, many colleges have reflected society’s concern about character andmorality by retaining or adding requirements in “moral and ethical reasoning,” that is, by handing the topic over to specialists in moral philosophy. At the same time, the old structure for introducing undergraduates to the other “Big Questions” has, with some notable exceptions, been dismantled—the general education courses of the famed Harvard Red Book of 1945, core curricula, great books courses, and so on. In effect, the big identity question has eclipsed the others.
None of this will surprise you, but we have found something else.
Something is happening among the students on American campuses that has not yet been picked up in the statistics. Students may still be put off by talk about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life”; they may still be understandably anxious about how they are going to fare in this globalizing economy; they may still be more focused on what’s going to happen on Saturday night than on anything else; but I believe it when faculty members tell me that their students are “hungry,” “thirsty,” or even “parched” for an intellectually serious way of engaging with those “Big Questions.”
I’ve found confirmation of this in focus groups and one on one conversations with students. And while surveys are always imprecise and lagging indicators of what’s happening, the figures attesting students’ interest in religion and spiritual matters are, I believe, a feather in the wind, hinting at wider concerns and deeper changes. I am referring not to the figures showing increased enrollment in courses in religious studies post 9/11, but to another survey from UCLA, this one indicating that more than 70 percent of the responding students stated that they pray, consider religion personally helpful, and feel that religious or spiritual beliefs help shape their identity. Let’s not jump to the conclusion that we are in another of those Great Awakenings or periods of religious revival that have occurred from time to time in American history. But something is happening on American campuses which is bringing many “Big Questions” front and center, including ones about ethics and morality.
Students increasingly want to engage with these questions. How well are colleges and universities responding? It’s a mixed bag, I think. I could point to some success stories but often, too often, faculty members are not engaging with students’ “Big Questions.”
Here are four possible reasons:
Faculty members are scared away by the straw man Stanley Fish and others have set up. No one wants to “mold,” “brainwash,” or “proselytize” students. One does not want to be accused of anything like that, including, touse Stanley Fish’s favorite word, “fashioning” one’s students. But that’s not what it’s all about. Along with all the paraphernalia college students bring with them these days, are some “Big Questions,” often poorly formulated and approached with no clue that anyone in the history of humankind has ever had anything useful to say about any of them. There’s no need to answer those questions for students, or to try to fashion them into noble people or virtuous citizens for the republic. There is, however, every reason to help students develop the vocabularies, the metaphors, the exempla, the historical perspective, the patterns of analysis and argument that let them over time answer them for themselves.
A second possible reason is it that faculty are put off by the feeling they are not “experts” in these matters. In a culture that values professional expertise, forays beyond one’s field of competence are understandably suspect. But one does not have to be a moral philosopher to raise the “Big Questions” and show some of the ways smart people in the past have struggled with them. I won’t pontificate about other fields, but in my own field, classics and ancient history, the “Big Questions” come bubbling up between the floor boards of any text I have ever taught. I don’t have to be a professional specialist in philosophy to see that Thucydides has something to say about power and morality, or the Odyssey about being a father and a husband. A classicist’s job is to challenge students to think about what’s implicit in a text, help them make it explicit, and use it to think with.
Or is it that “moral education” or anything resembling it is the third rail of a professional career. Senior colleagues don’t encourage it; professional journals don’t publish it; deans don’t reward it; and a half-dozen disgruntled students can sink you with their teaching evaluations. You learn early on in an academic career not to touch the third rail.
Or, at the end of my list, is a former student of mine—who now teaches at a fine women’s college dedicated to liberal education—correct when she says that on her campus, “It tends to be that…those who talk about morality and the ‘Big Questions’ come from such an entrenched far right position…that the rest of us… run for cover.”
Some of the above? All of the above? None of the above? You tell me, but let me end by asking you what I asked my former student. What happens if, for whatever reason, faculty run for the hills when the “Big Questions,” including the ones about morality, arise? Do they not then leave the field to people we cannot trust, or allow a vacuum to be filled by the powerful manipulations of consumer culture? Are we not then impoverishing exchanges with colleagues and blurring educational focus on what really matters most? Are we severing one of the roots that has, over the centuries, kept liberal education alive and flourishing? But, most serious of all, will we each year say farewell to another class of students knowing that for all they have learned, they are ill-equipped to lead an examined life? And if we do, what does that mean for our country?