Mixing Morals With Education?

June 19, 2004


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 Chicago.

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 one."

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 institution."

"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 said.

"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 cultures."

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 higher education."

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 of Socrates?"

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.