Mixing Morals With Education?
June 19, 2004
By PETER STEINFELS
Don't be fooled by those lofty commencement speeches. Not
everyone thinks that a college education
should have anything to do with
inculcating moral values.
Not, for example, Stanley Fish, dean of the College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education a year ago,
Dean Fish reminded his fellow university teachers that when
it comes to having an effect on students, "you might just
make them into good researchers." "You can't make them into good
people,'' he said, "and you shouldn't try."
In that view Dean Fish may be unusually blunt, but he is
certainly not alone. Back in 1997, John J. Mearsheimer,
distinguished professor of political science at the
University of Chicago, delivered the annual Aims of
Education Address to the arriving class of 2001. He
summarized those aims, at least at the University of
Chicago, as teaching students to think critically,
broadening their intellectual horizons and promoting their
self-awareness, their capacity to understand their own
strengths and limitations.
Having expanded on those aims in a somewhat avuncular
fashion, with plenty of good advice to new students,
Professor Mearsheimer took up two goals that the university
does not pursue. One of these "non-aims" was "providing
truth." He meant not to reject the notion of truth -
although he used the word very sparingly - but only to say
that "we expect you to figure out the truth, if there is
About the second "non-aim," he was unequivocal: "The
university also makes little effort to provide you with
moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral
"Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there
is a clear separation between intellectual and moral
purpose," he explained, "and they pursue the former while
largely ignoring the latter."
Not that the university was immoral or that its faculty
members were without moral views. But "collectively we are
silent on the issue of morality," Professor Mearsheimer
"Moreover,'' he added, "I bet that you will take few
classes here at Chicago where you discuss ethics or
morality in any detail, mainly because those kinds of
courses do not exist."
One wonders whether Dean Fish, a man with a nose for
provocative titles - he is the author of "There's No Such
Thing as Free Speech . . . and It's a Good Thing, Too"
(Oxford University Press, 1994) - had Chicago's Aims of
Education Address in mind. As if in response, his article
in The Chronicle of Higher Education was titled "Aim Low."
Of course, not all educators agree. One suspects, for
example, that Leon R. Kass, a professor on the University
of Chicago's famed Committee on Social Thought and chairman
of the President's Council on Bioethics, might not be
content with Professor Mearsheimer's description of a
Chicago education. In fact, the occasion for Dean Fish's
admonition was a volume from the Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching, a volume with ambitions amply
revealed in its title and subtitle: "Educating Citizens:
Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and
Civic Responsibility" (Jossey-Bass, 2003).
That preparation, the book argued, should encompass goals
like "self-understanding or self-knowledge,'' along with
"awareness of and willingness to take responsibility for
the consequences of one's actions for others and society"
and "ability to understand the value of one's own and other
To Dean Fish, those goals not only divert energy from the
much more limited things that higher education can really
accomplish, but also constitute "a mishmash of self-help
platitudes, vulgar multiculturalism (is there any other
kind?) and a soft-core version of 60's radicalism."
One scents a debate here between Dean Fish, who dismissed
"self-understanding or self-knowledge" as a workable aim of
higher education, and Professor Mearsheimer, who made
"promoting self-awareness" one of his principal ones. Or
even a debate between the Professor Mearsheimer who
repeatedly urged students to ask questions that are
"central" and "big" and "enduring," and the same Professor
Mearsheimer who acquiesced in the university's sidelining
of moral and religious issues.
Where Dean Fish claimed that moral and civic education in
colleges and universities was not only "a bad idea" but an
unworkable one, someone else might reply that it is
nonetheless unavoidable. Doesn't an emphasis on critical
thinking, broad intellectual horizons and growth in
self-awareness imply more of a moral as well as
intellectual agenda than Professor Mearsheimer let on?
Professor Mearsheimer acknowledged "one important
exception" to the university's amorality: its condemnation
of cheating, academic fraud and plagiarism. He also
discussed "the good life" and the advantages of having "a
lot of money in the bank, and the more of it you have, the
better." And he offered some sensible thoughts on facing
personal crises. In all this, wasn't he, like it or not,
slouching dangerously toward a morality?
Even Dean Fish's minimal goal of equipping his students
with a set of skills may involve a good bit of what George
Dennis O'Brien, former president of the University of
Rochester, has called the "ascetic" morality "inherent in
the very notions of research, discovery and scientific
truth," a "morality" that he says (not without serious
reservations) "has become the dominant philosophy of modern
But long before these relatively subtle questions can
complicate the case for separating intellectual and moral
education, one easily imagines Americans having two
contradictory spontaneous reactions to the very idea.
One reaction would be: "Why, of course! Not only is it
practical to filter out the moral from the intellectual, it
is also liberating, especially from a whole range of
inherited moral and religious biases."
The other reaction would be: "How preposterous! This is a
tearing asunder that is not only impossible but
undesirable. Whatever became of Emerson ('Character is
higher than intellect,' he declaimed at Harvard), let alone
Many educators might like to see these two clashing
viewpoints engage each other, perhaps even as part of an
undergraduate education itself. Short of that, the
contrasting reactions underline the value of an American
higher education that remains pluralistic, not only within
but among institutions.
That pluralism allows some colleges and universities to
operate explicitly out of a variety of religious and moral
traditions alongside the many that Professor Mearsheimer
suggests are determinedly amoral, or else are among those
whose internal attitude toward "preparing America's
undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility"
may teeter, from day to day or class to class, from one
approach to the other.