Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Academic ethics

Win Myers calls our attention to this essay on ethics in higher education. I can’t help but agree with this paragraph:

We would argue that, like elementary schools, universities have an obligation to ethically nurture undergraduate and graduate students. Although the earliest years of life are most important for the formation of ethical habits, universities can influence ethics as well. Like the Greek polis, universities become ethical when they become communities of virtue that foster and demonstrate ethical excellence. Lack of commitment to teaching, lack of concern for student outcomes, false advertising about job opportunities open to graduates, and diploma-mill teaching practices are examples of institutional practices that corrode rather than nourish ethics on campuses.

The authors indeed identify some campus practices that may corrupt all members of the community, students, faculty, and staff alike. But there’s more to it than that, and I’m not convinced that the authors have their fingers on what more there is and what, if anything, we can do either to promote virtue or to avoid its corruption.

Let me start with something obvious, whose full import isn’t noted by the authors. Students come to us not quite fully formed, but nevertheless pretty far down the moral path they’re going to take. They are in some measure products of their families, churches (and other religious institutions), communities, and schools. There are real limits to what we in the universities can do. We can do our darndest to undermine the commitments and character our students bring to campus. Or we can strengthen them at the margins, helping students critically to engage with and discern a wider and more diverse culture and society than the one that "produced" them. (I had promised to say no more about God on the Quad, but Riley does a good job describing efforts at various religious institutions to help students with that sort of discernment.)

Let me state this last point in both secular and religious ways. The secular way of putting is that, the authors to the contrary notwithstanding, philosophy is indeed necessary, not in order logically to derive moral principles, but rather to defend them against relativist and nihilist doubts. Aristotle himself works within a moral horizon, offering the most systematic possible account of gentlemanly virtue, but not deducing it from non-moral first principles. A latter-day Aristotelian can offer a defense of sound common sense against the inventions of theory.

From a religious point of view, the college and university experience can help students become more articulate and thoughtful defenders of their faith, open to the larger world, but not vulnerable and defenseless in the face of its challenges.

To wrap this longish post up, the two things most needful for ethics in higher education are religion and philosophy, the one not mentioned in the column, the other more or less dismissed. Campus practices can indeed avoid undermining and reinforce the common decency a good number of our students bring with them, but our students do need practice in moral discernment, whether offered in explicitly religious terms or in the language of natural law.

Discussions - 1 Comment

Hey NLT...

Have you guys been discussing the corruption in Ohio’s government at all? I’ve been on vacation and thus haven’t been getting my daily dose of the ol’ NLT. Can you refer me or start talking about it? I think it’s an important issue, especially since you are all based in Ohio.

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