Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Debate on Moral Education

A Book: Debates in Moral Education (soon to be published by the Duke University Press).

From the blurb:
At a time when every major social institution – business, government, the church, the press, the army, the schools – is plagued by high-profile ethics scandals, a new debate is brewing about what role, if any, colleges and universities can and should have in moral education.

On the one hand, there has been a “return to ethics” in the academy. Influential voices argue that ethics is central to the mission of higher education, that colleges and universities shape our students’ characters and shape, as well as reflect, our society’s ethics in multiple ways. But other, no less influential voices dismiss the work of ethics champions. They argue that the university ought to eschew any attempt to shape students’ characters beyond trying to make them into good researchers; otherwise it is bound to fall into dangerous forms of dogmatism or partisanship.

Some relevant articles:

"Professor, Do Your Job" by Stanley Fish, the author of Save the World on your Own Time.

Some excerpts:
Wesleyan University starts well by pledging to “cultivate a campus environment where students think critically, participate in constructive dialogue and engage in meaningful contemplation ” (although I’m not sure what meaningful contemplation is); but then we read of the intention to “foster awareness, respect, and appreciation for a diversity of experiences, interests, beliefs and identities. ” Awareness is okay; it’s important to know what’s out there. But why should students be taught to “respect” a diversity of interests, beliefs, and identities in advance of assessing them and taking their measure? The missing word here is “evaluate.” That’s what intellectual work is all about, the evaluation, not the celebration, of interests, beliefs, and identities; after all, interests can be base, beliefs can be wrong, and identities are often irrelevant to an inquiry.


It might be objected that while it may be easy to remain within academic bounds when the debate is about the right interpretation of Paradise Lost, the line between the academic and the political has been blurred before the discussion begins when the subject is ethics and students are arguing, for example, about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. But students shouldn't be arguing about whether stem cell research is a good or bad idea. They should be studying the arguments various parties have made about stem cell research. Even in a class focused on ethical questions, the distinction I would enforce holds. Analyzing ethical issues is one thing; deciding them is another, and only the first is an appropriate academic activity. Again, I do not mean to exclude political topics from the classroom, but to insist that when political topics are introduced, they not be taught politically, that is, with a view to either affirming or rejecting a particular political position.


The really dull classroom would be the one in which a bunch of 19- or 20-year-olds debate assisted suicide, physician-prescribed marijuana, or the war in Iraq in response to the question “What do you think?” Sure, lots of students would say things, but what they would say would be completely predictable — a mini-version of what you hear on the Sunday talk shows — in short, a rehearsing of opinions. Meanwhile the genuine excitement of an academic discussion where you have a chance of learning something, as opposed to just blurting out uninformed opinions, will have been lost. What teacher and student are jointly after is knowledge, and the question should never be “What do you think?” (unless you’re a social scientist conducting a survey designed to capture public opinion). The question should be “What is the truth?” and the answer must stand up against challenges involving (among other things) the quality and quantity of evidence, the cogency of arguments, the soundness of conclusions, and so forth.


The question of what you are responsible for is also the question of what you should aim for, and what you should aim for is what you can aim for — that is, what you can reasonably set out to do as opposed to what is simply not within your power to do. You can reasonably set out to put your students in possession of a set of materials and equip them with a set of skills (interpretive, computational, laboratory, archival), and even perhaps (although this one is really iffy) instill in them the same love of the subject that inspires your pedagogical efforts. You won ’t always succeed in accomplishing these things — even with the best of intentions and lesson plans there will always be inattentive or distracted students, frequently absent students, unprepared students, and on-another-planet students — but at least you will have a fighting chance given the fact that you’ve got them locked in a room with you for a few hours every week for four months.

You have little chance (and that entirely a matter of serendipity), however, of determining what they will make of what you have offered them once the room is unlocked for the last time and they escape first into the space of someone else ’s obsession and then into the space of the wide, wide world.

And you have no chance at all (short of a discipleship that is itself suspect and dangerous) of determining what their behavior and values will be in those aspects of their lives that are not, in the strict sense of the word, academic. You might just make them into good researchers. You can’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try.

The Aims of Education Address by John J. Mearsheimer. Some excerpts:
In short, I am saying that there is a powerful norm at this institution to not tell you what to think about important issues, but instead to let you reach your own conclusions. Our forte is teaching you how to think, not what to think.


The importance of religion at elite educational institutions like Chicago diminished greatly in the first decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, educational leaders were convinced that you could still study and teach morality without religion. They believed that the scientific method could be used to discover the correct moral precepts. Social scientists, in other words, could employ their tools to study ethics, and in the end, you would have a scientific morality. Social scientists would take the place of the clergy. In essence, proponents of this perspective believed that there was no conflict between critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge on one hand, and the study of morality on the other hand.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the effort to develop a scientific morality failed almost completely. Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter. There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance.

An article in the NY Times
reports on both of the above articles.

I think the issue is simple (though contentious) in the education of adults. It becomes more complex when we turn to children.

Children obviously have to be taught (even if a little authoritatively) certain aspects of courtesy, social graces, considerateness and contextually acceptable behavior (for example: defecation). And it is difficult (for teachers) to investigate and to explain (to children) the reasoning and history behind general behavioral patterns. Should children be taught only through reasoning? Since a child has a developing brain with limited exposure, would it be stressful (both for the teacher and for the child) to analyze the complex causal chains which underlie some very implicit behavior patterns (clothing and defecation, for example)?

Is it acceptable to answer a child: "you will understand this when you grow up"? I think it certainly is, in many situations. What about situations in which a child is told to behave in a certain way but the reasoning is held back and instead the path of reward/punishment is used? Though it is a severe demand for parents to explain everything to their children, I think it is worthwhile to explain bothersome issues. If a child naturally accepts a certain behavior (due to emulation of adults, peer-group training, etc.), fine. If the child is having difficulty, I think explanations are called for.

And of course, leading by example is one of the most important aspects in teaching a behavior pattern. It will be very hard for a child to keep away from junk food, television and crude talk if it sees adults all around (and especially those whom it respects and who have authority and guardianship over it) to indulge in them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do you think?