January 21st, 2010

Moral Education


Steven B. Sample, president of USC, makes an interesting point in a recent online article. Universities, especially the elite research universities, make much of the accomplishments of alumni. University publications showcase what they’ve achieved, and celebratory events are scheduled when they return to campus. “What we do not want anyone to count, by contrast, is the number of our alumni under indictment or in prison. Liars, cheaters, evaders, invaders, wreckers, malfeasors of every stripe—their (typically) white collars sullied and tattered—embarras us.” Sample points out that most of the offenders in the news for financial scandals or personal transgressions went to “good schools.” Despite that, they missed learning some of the most important lessons they should have learned in college. How could that be?

“The answer, I believe, is simple. We abandoned moral education.” Sample explains why. “The increasing secularization and diversification of our colleges and universities necessitated open-minded heterodoxy. Free inquiry, after all, was the gold standard. Education, not indoctrination. Independence, not conformity.”

And herein lies the problem when it comes to reintroducing moral education: “… too often people are still preoccupied with a particular religious orthodoxy—be it Hindo, Protestant, Catholic, Morman, Muslim, Jewish, etc—when they attempt to prepare themselves to make moral choices. Despite the existence of a sound basis for making moral choices focused on generally accepted human, nonsectarian values, faculty members and adminstrators are reluctant to engage in discourse on ethics.”

Sample is optimistic about the effects of moral education, should we be bold enough to undertake teaching it again. Students, he observes, “do not come to us fully formed” and have not yet grappled with complex moral choices. “It is a long … distance from a student’s weighing whether she or he should claim the computer crashed or simply admit not getting the term paper written to the even more challenging instance of a doctor trying to decide whether to follow the law and tell the parents about their teenage daughter’s abortion. Cultivating the kind of critical analysis involved in the latter dilemma is what colleges and universities are all about, or purport to be all about. Nuance, seeing different sides of an issue, considering context, history, circumstances—these methods of evaluation are, or at least should, be the bread and butter of a university and college education today.”

This is a thoughtful, well-written piece—the kind you could profitably read with a colleague or as a department.

Reference: Sample, S. B. “ The Pursuit of Wisdom: A Modest, but Essential Prescription for the Future.” It was published in December, 2009 in the journal Innovative Higher Education in Online First. Find the journal at: www.springerlink.com