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Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University

Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University

by Elizabeth KissElizabeth Kiss
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After decades of marginalization in the secularized twentieth-century academy, moral education has enjoyed a recent resurgence in American higher education, with the establishment of more than 100 ethics centers and programs on campuses across the country. Yet the idea that the university has a civic responsibility to teach its undergraduate students ethics and morality has been met with skepticism, suspicion, and even outright rejection from both inside and outside the academy. In this collection, renowned scholars of philosophy, politics, and religion debate the role of ethics in the university, investigating whether universities should proactively cultivate morality and ethics, what teaching ethics entails, and what moral education should accomplish. The essays quickly open up to broader questions regarding the very purpose of a university education in modern society.

Editors Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben survey the history of ethics in higher education, then engage with provocative recent writings by Stanley Fish in which he argues that universities should not be involved in moral education. Stanley Hauerwas responds, offering a theological perspective on the university's purpose. Contributors look at the place of politics in moral education; suggest that increasingly diverse, multicultural student bodies are resources for the teaching of ethics; and show how the debate over civic education in public grade-schools provides valuable lessons for higher education. Others reflect on the virtues and character traits that a moral education should foster in students-such as honesty, tolerance, and integrity-and the ways that ethical training formally and informally happens on campuses today, from the classroom to the basketball court. Debating Moral Education is a critical contribution to the ongoing discussion of the role and evolution of ethics education in the modern liberal arts university.

Contributors. Lawrence Blum, Romand Coles, J. Peter Euben, Stanley Fish, Michael Allen Gillespie, Ruth W. Grant, Stanley Hauerwas, David A. Hoekema, Elizabeth Kiss, Patchen Markell, Susan Jane McWilliams, Wilson Carey McWilliams, J. Donald Moon, James Bernard Murphy, Noah Pickus, Julie A. Reuben, George Shulman, Elizabeth V. Spelman

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822346166
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/25/2010
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Kiss is President of Agnes Scott College.

J. Peter Euben is Professor of Political Science, Research Professor of Classical Studies, and Kenan Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Ethics at Duke University. He is the author of Platonic Noise, Corrupting Youth, and The Tragedy of Political Theory, and an editor of Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy.

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Rethinking the Role of the Modern University

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4620-3

Chapter One

Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben


The past two decades have witnessed a substantial turn, or more precisely a return, to ethics in the American academy. While this trend remains incomplete and contested, it is visible in the recent establishment of over one hundred ethics centers and programs; the creation of numerous undergraduate and professional school courses in practical or applied ethics; and increased interest in normative questions in a variety of academic disciplines. New national associations have emerged that promote ethics in higher education, including the Association for Moral Education (founded in 1976), the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (founded in 1990), Campus Compact (founded in 1985), and the Center for Academic Integrity (founded in 1992). A small but growing number of schools have made the study of ethics part of their core curricula and have emphasized the ethical dimension of courses more generally.

Nor is the burgeoning interest in ethics confined to the classroom. Efforts to promote academic integrity, respect for diversity, and civic engagement reach beyond the classroom to encompass student life, campus policies, and university-community relations. A number of ethics centers, including one, Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics, with which we are or have been affiliated, pursue a broad university-wide mission that seeks to infuse ethical concerns and conversations across the curriculum, in everyday campus life, and in institutional practices and priorities.

This growing interest, and the educational vision that animates it, has not gone unchallenged. For example, when the distinguished political scientist John Mearsheimer delivered the annual "Aims of Education" address in 1997 to the incoming first-year class at the University of Chicago, he argued that the purpose of a university education is to help students think critically, to broaden their intellectual horizons, and to promote greater self-awareness. What the university does not do, he added, is "provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution." The university does not, and should not, offer courses "where you discuss ethics or morality in any detail," nor should it see it as part of its mission to help students "in sorting out" the ethical issues they will face in their lives.

As the essays in this book indicate, Mearsheimer is not alone. Many colleagues with very different political, methodological, and theoretical commitments are indifferent to, if not actively hostile to, the language of ethics and morals. To complicate matters further, they often mean different things by the terms "ethics" and "morals" and have very different conceptions of the relationships between ethics and morality, moral and civic education, or ethics and politics. For example, Bernard Williams insists on a clear distinction between ethics and morality, preserving the broader Greek meaning of the former from modern attempts at co-optation and linking the latter with what he regards as a peculiar, and fundamentally flawed, Western Enlightenment tradition of ethical thought focused on obligation. While Lawrence Hinman regards ethics as systematic reflection on moral issues, John Caputo is critical of both ethics and morality. In this volume, Patchen Markell, George Shulman, and Romand Coles are all leery about what is elided by the very language of morality and moral education. Markell argues that morality (probably unlike ethics) "risks flattening a rich field of questions about conduct into a single register of law, dutiful obedience, and righteous punishment," all of which risk reducing politics and citizenship to matters of individual virtue. Similarly, Shulman emphasizes the way practices of morality constitute forms of power, and Coles argues that ethical education as generally conceived and practiced in universities obscures urgent questions of systematic injustice. As to the idea of civic education, some regard its aim as civility while others draw on a more politically rigorous tradition of civic republicanism. We have not insisted that our contributors use these terms consistently, since their very inconsistencies attest to the underlying debates this book seeks to explore.

Even when there is broad agreement on the desirability of teaching ethics there is vigorous disagreement about what this means. For instance, should the aim of moral education-or of education in general-be to make people more ethical? Or should it aim to avoid corrupting what Ruth Grant (following Rousseau) calls "ordinary goodness"? And what sense can we make of the idea of ordinary goodness given the prevalence in our world of ordinary evil? Can moral education, for instance, help us to prevent another Auschwitz, Rwanda, or Darfur? Closer to home, can moral education prevent, or at least discourage, our students from acting in boorish, racist, sexist ways?

Advocates of moral education also differ on what those who teach ethics should actually do. Should we teach critical interpretation of texts that raise ethical issues, introduce students to traditions of ethical thought, teach moral reasoning or deliberation or judgment, cultivate the moral imagination so students can see the world from other points of view, or some combination of these? What is the role and place of experiential approaches to the teaching of ethics, from service-learning to student-run honor systems? How can we integrate such learning with more traditional academic purposes so that each informs the other? If, as Aristotle argued, being ethical requires the reciprocity of habit, character, and action, how do universities create contexts for moral growth?

Our aim in this volume is to explore and participate in the debate over moral education. We want to engage the substantive question of what it means to teach ethics and what moral education worthy of the name might look like in today's colleges and universities. To this end we have gathered a group of scholars and teachers from different disciplines and institutions who offer strong, divergent views on these questions. But while we consider ourselves participants in the "return to ethics" and respect the moral ambitions of those who champion it, we have also invited critics and skeptics to join the conversation and indeed to contest its terms. In this sense we want to debate the debate: to read the return to ethics (and rejections of it) symptomatically as well as substantively. Thus we ask why the growing preoccupation with ethics (insofar as there is one) appears when it does, where it does, and as it does.

But before we can approach any of these aims, we need to develop a deeper understanding of today's "return to ethics." To that end, we offer a historical narrative of the decline of ethics and of changing perceptions of its relationship to fundamental issues of higher education. It is this larger narrative that sets the stage for the terms of today's debate. In telling our story, however, we acknowledge that every narrative of decline is both less and more than it seems.

Educators in the American colonies and the young United States embraced a tradition going back to Aristotle and the Greeks that linked liberal education with the development of moral and civic virtue. A concern for character formation and citizenship, intertwined with Christian and civic republican conceptions of duty and virtue, dominated American higher education throughout the nineteenth century. Ethics "furnished an integrating principle for the entire curriculum," most notably through a capstone course in moral philosophy required of all seniors at many institutions. The abrupt demise of this curricular emphasis occurred around the turn of the twentieth century.

Recent work by Sloan, Julie Reuben, and Edward McClellan traces the complex cultural, intellectual, and institutional factors that led to the marginalization of ethics in the twentieth-century academy. These included the creation of the research university with its specialized disciplines and professional norms centered on research; the rise of the ideal of "value-free" inquiry in the social sciences; the increasing secularization of intellectual life; the precipitous decline of normative ethics that accompanied the rise of analytical philosophy; growing suspicion about the status of ethical claims fueled by otherwise disparate intellectual movements such as logical positivism, behaviorism, and postmodernism; an emphasis on vocational and technical training in professional schools and in the state universities and community colleges that enroll the majority of America's college students; a rising culture of consumerism within and about higher education; and a new and widening division of labor between academic and student affairs that led faculty to limit their student interactions to the classroom, leaving all other aspects of students' lives to other campus professionals.

Of course, the reality was more complicated than this relentless story of decline suggests. For one thing, institutions of higher education, then as now, often embraced contradictory aims which could safely be espoused by various factions as long as no one insisted that they be reconciled. For another, the modern research university was initially conceived as a vehicle for renewing the moral and civic mission of higher education by equipping citizens with the moral ideals and specialized knowledge needed to solve the problems of an increasingly complex society. The new social sciences were supposed to "embrace the ethical tasks of their moral philosophical heritage, but fulfill them in ways appropriate to the modern world." Still, within just a few years, this vision of the social sciences and of the new university had been largely abandoned in favor of an ideal of professional researchers pursuing "value-free" inquiry within narrowly defined disciplinary boundaries. The cataclysmic events of the Holocaust and World War II did inspire some powerful scholarship informed by a normative agenda, such as Hannah Arendt's analysis of evil, the critical theories of Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, and Stanley Milgram's controversial experiments on obedience. But by and large, the study and teaching of ethics was relegated to a few specialized courses in religion and philosophy and increasingly marginalized even within these disciplines.

Consider developments within philosophy. Anglo-American philosophers at midcentury were, by and large, uninterested in or even contemptuous of the approaches taken by critical theorists, opting instead for a focus on meta-ethics that delegitimated philosophical concern with practical ethics and with the most perplexing moral issues of modernity. While the rise of analytical philosophy has often been portrayed as a victory for logical clarity and precision, recent scholarship has suggested that the shift away from socially and ethically engaged forms of philosophy was prompted, at least to some degree, by Cold War pressures in the era of McCarthyism. But whether prompted by political anxiety or intellectual commitment, many academic philosophers in the 1950s and 1960s came to regard moral judgments as nonrational expressions of personal preference. However, while these views may have been a breath of fresh air compared to some of the excesses of neo-Hegelianism, the dry, deflationary accounts of moral life offered as alternatives by theories like emotivism ultimately failed to illuminate moral life and generated little intellectual excitement on campus. The author of an article in Liberal Education in 1964 on the role of philosophy in the undergraduate curriculum noted that at his own institution of 12,000 students the enrollment in ethics courses averaged eleven students per year.

Meanwhile, in law and medical schools, traditional emphases on developing a rigorous professional ethos were replaced by a focus on technical expertise that ignored, or on occasion was actively hostile to, ethical considerations. A memorable example was offered by former Harvard president Derek Bok, whose efforts in the 1980s to establish a program on professional ethics were opposed by some senior faculty of the Harvard Law School, one of whom patiently explained to Bok that the goal of legal education was precisely to "anesthetize" students' moral judgments. Oscar Wilde had once quipped that "a preoccupation with matters of right and wrong in conduct is a sign of arrested intellectual development," and the twentieth-century American academy was inclined to agree.

To be sure, traditional moral and civic themes continued to be invoked in commencement addresses and college and university catalogues, where, as David Hoekema points out, "the language of character, citizenship, and moral community is laid on with a trowel." But the reality behind the rhetoric, he adds, "might be summarized thus: 'We hire excellent scholars for our faculty, maintain a good library, and fill the flower beds for parents' weekend; and we sincerely hope that the students will turn out right.'"

Ironically, the events that began to revive interest in ethical questions on college and university campuses are precisely those that conservatives frequently cite as catalysts for moral decline. As Edward McClellan notes, "The very events that brought disorder to the campus-the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, concerns about the environment-also gave birth to a new vigor in moral discourse." Indeed, for better or for worse, the political movements of the sixties and early seventies were driven by a sense of moral outrage at the hypocrisies of American democracy and a desire to reexamine the relationships between ethics, politics, and power. The rise of "practical" or "applied" ethics owes a great deal to the movements demanding power and respect for African Americans, women, the poor, and other subordinated and marginalized groups, movements that powerfully posed and reframed questions about justice and the good society and about norms of personal conduct between women and men, whites and blacks, gay and straight people.

A second and distinct source of the campus ethics revival is public concern about a decline in ethical standards and commitment in personal, professional, and public life, fueled by a wave of scandals stretching from Tuskeegee and Watergate to the Lewinsky affair and Enron, as well as by broader social trends, from rising rates of crime, drug use, cheating, and divorce, to rampant materialism and civic apathy. Together, these clusters of events have fueled inquiry into public goods and private virtues and the social and educational conditions that sustain them. Influential scholarship on ethical theory and moral development by such diverse scholars as John Rawls, Lawrence Kohlberg, Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Carol Gilligan reflected and inspired this inquiry-and made ethics academically respectable again. A growing number of educators argued that questions about right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice were essential elements of a good education. In the words of a pioneering Hastings Center report in 1980, "A 'higher education' that does not foster, support, and implement an examination of the moral life will fail its own purposes, the needs of its students, and the welfare of society."


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Table of Contents

Foreword Noah Pickus ix

Acknowledgments xiii

I Introduction: Why the Return to Ethics? Why Now? 1

1 Debating Moral Education: An Introduction: Elizabeth Kiss J. Peter Euben 3

2 The Changing Contours of Moral Education in American Colleges and Universities Julie A. Reuben 27

II What Are Universities For? 55

3 Aim High: A Response to Stanley Fish Elizabeth Kiss J. Peter Euben 57

4 I Know it When I See it: A Reply to Kiss And Euben Stanley Fish 76

5 The Pathos of The University: The Case of Stanley Fish Stanley Hauerwas 92

6 On The Distribution of Moral Badges: A Few Worries Elizabeth V. Spelman 111

III The Politics and Ethics of Higher Education 123

7 Pluralism and the Education of The Spirit Wilson Carey McWilliams Susan Jane McWilliams 125

8 Multiculturalism and Moral Education Lawrence Blum 140

9 Against Civic Education in Schools James Bernard Murph 162

10 Education, Independence, and Acknowledgment Patchen Markell 186

11 The Power of Morality George Shulman 206

12 Hunger, Ethics, and the University: A Radical Democratic Goad in Ten Pieces Romand Coles 223

IV Which Virtues? Whose Character? 247

13 Is There an Ethicist in the House? How Can We Tell? David A. Hoekema 249

14 The Possibility of Moral Education in the University Today J. Donald Moon 267

15 Is Humanistic Education Humanizing? Ruth W. Grant 283

16 Players and Spectators: Sports And Ethical Training in the American University Michael Allen Gillespie 296

Bibliography 317

Contributors 337

Index 341

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