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Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University
Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University

Duke University Press Books, 2010
368 pp., 28.95

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Jerry Pattengale


What Are Universities For?

The contested terrain of moral education.

One of T. Harry Williams' many graduate students recounted a cryptic event at which their renowned professor garnered two unofficial awards, "The professor we learned the most from" and "The most boring professor." The same mixed compliment could be given the editors' introduction to Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University—a book with a methodically slow beginning, but one I've already recommended to the directors of three top graduate programs.

Editors Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben admirably capture Duke University's working conference on moral education; this volume is the third in a series from the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Although it begins with a droning outline of lists and a barrage of questions, the introduction frames an important discussion on moral education. Kiss and Euben set the stage well for a view of Stanley Fish's upstream struggle against moral education in the college curriculum. After standing ashore applauding his powerful presence, including his invited essay, they jump into the "debate" waters by countering his argument—though the book proves more a helpful descriptive dialogue than a debate. And like the third chapter of the late Bill Placher's Triune God, one chapter is worth the purchase all by itself.

During a conversation with a friend while I was still in the midst of reading this collection of essays, I found myself pulling the book from my shelf and reading from Stanley Hauerwas' chapter, "The Pathos of the University: The Case of Stanley Fish." It's a provocative challenge to Christian institutions. Building on Alasdair MacIntyre's work, Hauerwas notes that America's non-religious universities lack an "educated public"—a dynamic of shared components necessary for liberal arts' potency in addressing civic needs. However, it's different for the church-related colleges, or at least should be:

For at the very least Christianity names an ongoing argument across centuries of a tradition which has established why some texts must be read and read in relation to other texts. Christians, for all their shortcomings, still represent an ongoing educated public, which means that they must, as MacIntyre suggests any educated public must, have agreements that make their disagreements intelligible …. Christians should know what their universities are for. They are to shape people in the love of God.

Stanley Fish provoked the debate that provides the point of departure for this volume with his lucid series of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he contributes a rejoinder to Kiss and Euben. Taking Fish on from a different angle, Hauerwas notes that faculty and administrators seldom ask two fundamental questions: "What are universities for?" and "Who do they serve?" The answers to these create an impasse for Fish, who ignores key aspects of the educational enterprise: keeping learning both meaningful and engaging, and exercising common sense about the funding side of critical inquiry. And yet Hauerwas also pays tribute to Fish's "marvelously candid" articles: "No one makes the case more clearly than Fish that the purpose and justification of the university is quite simply to support Stanley Fish's work as a literary critic."

That's funny, but it's not just a smart remark. As Hauerwas observes, Fish's argument makes perfect sense in an academic setting that no longer has any common judgments on what is true, good, and beautiful—a university that "can no longer be sustained or justified."

Julie Reuben's summary of "The Changing Contours of Moral Education in American Colleges and Universities" provides a helpful backdrop for this riveting Kiss/Euben-Fish-Hauerwas exchange. Though Reuben takes a sharp jab at political conservatives like Bill Bennett for allegedly exploiting campus controversies on multicultural curricular reform, she concedes that it "was at least partially true" that many of the universities since the 1970s "had been politicized by the left." Her comments here are informed by the larger argument of her book The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (1996). Like Anthony Kronman in Education's End (2009), Reuben chronicles the supplanting of theology by "religious studies" and the eventual dominance of science in the curriculum. Academic freedom replaced reliance on authority, and by the 20th century the unity of knowledge was gone. In her sociological look at the history of moral education, she concludes that wrestling with life's big questions became an elective, if that, pushed to the fringe of extra-curricular activities.[1] Reuben frames well the recent attempts of the Association of American Colleges and Universities at curricular reform, and the significant effort to increase students' civic engagement through "service learning" by Campus Compact (founded in 1985 by college presidents) and the American Council on Education.

David Hoekema embraces this notion of moral education gaining ground among "extra-curricular" activities in his fluid chapter, "Is There an Ethicist in the House?" He finds three dominant influences on students' thinking about moral choices. Though course content is important, professors' conduct in and out of the classroom is more significant in shaping moral choice. The student life staff (including organizers of campus religious life) is a second group that usually has consistent "concrete" interaction with students on moral issues. And a third group includes student leaders of major campus organizations. Hoekema's insights resonate with the commonsensical chapter by Elizabeth V. Spelman ("On the Distribution of Moral Badges: A Few Worries"), who calmly asserts that everyone in the academic community is a "moral agent," and therefore no "retreat from ethics" is possible. And all university trustees should read Michael Allen Gillespie's similar views in "Players and Spectators: Sports and Ethics," which traces the role of sports in whole-person development from the time of the Greeks to both intramurals and mega-tournaments today—for good and ill: "There is great promise in sports and great danger …. We need … to produce citizens with virtues suitable to a democracy rather than performers who dance only for despots."

Ruth Grant gives us the book's most delightful read, beginning with a scene from Roman Polanski's film The Pianist. "The fact that the Holocaust began in the land of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven," Grant writes, "certainly ought to give us pause. We might well wonder: 'Is humanistic education humanizing?' Or, conversely, 'Is it just as likely to corrupt ordinary goodness?' " After provoking us to look at moral education through the relationship between intellectual and character development, she concludes by distilling the matter into three Socratic principles. These are found in Socrates' response in Apology to corrupting sophistry, or "intellectual sophistication without good character," as Grant puts it. Philosophers, and today's professors in particular, should "(1) avoid doing injustice; (2) 'know thyself"; and (3) care about the right things." The best outcome we could hope for among our graduates is to hate what Plato calls "the lie of the soul."

Other chapters look at the practical middle ground as well, such as George Schulman's exploration of the tension between democracy and moral education, and J. Donald Moon's focus on practical judgment. Moon turns the discussion on its head and looks at the "forms of badness" common among attempts at moral education: for example, imperialism, relativism, and "perhaps the principal form" of badness, "the denial of the agency of others." And although he recognizes the common view that skepticism is necessary to democracy, Moon argues that we need to shed the fashionable skepticism about moral education for the very realization of democracy: "The retreat to subjectivism and relativism which underlies that skepticism is ultimately corrosive of democracy itself, because it undermines the possibility of public discourse" and any expectation for "a rational consensus on the issues of public life."

I began this essay by noting the boring but excellent introduction. The mélange of topics broached there brought to mind Hari Seldon of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series: a deep understanding of societal complexities (not merely the academy's internal conversations) is needed before responding intelligibly to Fish's cavalier but calculated and well articulated claims. And thus the return to Kiss and Euben, who cast a wide net, including a list of twelve (!) trends in the upsurge of interest in moral education. They conclude with four key tasks for moral education among today's colleges and universities: understanding the moral ends of the academy; guaranteeing a learning environment "committed to high ideals, thoughtfully pursued"; challenging "moral evasions," refusing to allow ethics discussions to remain abstract and insisting that such debates must be "attentive to the broader variety and complexity of moral life"; and cultivating "a capacious moral imagination." Well said. Debating Moral Education makes an indispensable contribution to moral education's expanding bibliography.

1. As I argued in "The Big Questions" (Books & Culture, November/December 2009, p. 11), Kronman offers a useful chronicle of this history but fails to acknowledge many current examples of colleges returning to the great questions of the human condition. For more on Kronman and other recent works on moral education, see the theme issue of Christian Scholar's Review (Summer 2010) devoted to "Christian Higher Education as Character Formation." John Sommerville's lead essay brilliantly assesses five recent works bearing on this subject. Sommerville reminds Fish that "if we were disembodied minds, things would be different," but we're not, and "feelings help to validate the natural law, or what C.S. Lewis calls 'First Platitudes.'" And, like Hauerwas, Sommerville corrects Fish's notion that the professions do not belong in the academy—"like it or not," they consume at least half of the academy's energies. It can also be stated that they are, after all, "in the service of some human good."

Jerry Pattengale was recently named associate publisher for Christian Scholar's Review, visiting fellow at the Sagamore Institute, and a Writing Partner for GiANT Impact. He is executive director of National Conversations and an assistant provost at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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