Tuesday, May 31, 2016
New President Interview -- Part 35 Ethics and Academia
New President Interview -- Part 35
Ethics and Academia
Q: This is season for new college graduates to search for jobs. Some were lucky to find jobs before graduation, but others are still struggling to find something appropriate. Many students are faced with entry level positions that require 1-2 years of experience. Employers complain that many students graduate without critical thinking skills, research and analysis skills, and a lack of moral compass.
What is the role of the College in teaching morals and ethics?
A: This is a question that has been on the agenda of colleges and universities since the beginnings of the university. In 1986 Dr. Norman Lamm in an address to Yeshiva University that was later printed in the New Times challenged universities to teach ethics and offer moral guidance. In the days when some colleges were “gentleman’s clubs” for the rich, moral guidance and learning for the sake of learning (i.e. knowledge without an immediate practical purpose) were major parts of the curriculum. Dr. Lamm writes that 50 years ago (i.e. 1930’s) colleges were the special stewards of the wisdom of a good life, truth, goodness, beauty, and the value of investigating thought. Creative writing teaches among other skills, how to contemplate life. Philosophy teaches the value of pure thought.
While many professions have codes of ethics, these ethical codes are not part of the undergraduate curriculum. In the 1960’s the moral mission of higher education was equated with imperialism. Today the moral or ethical component education is part of critical thinking skills that employers want.
The 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts includes the following in Chapter V.
Section II. The Encouragement of Literature, etc.
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humour, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.
Q: Are students becoming moral illiterates?
Without a moral or ethical compass, students can fall prey to predators, liars and half-baked rhetoric. The goal of teaching critical thinking is to enable graduates to have the ability to understand the world tomorrow in a way that we could not imagine today. They should be able to analyze new situations and come up with reasonable solutions. As educators we have to not only believe in the superiority of education as opposed to ignorance, but also live this belief in words and actions. Reason, investigation, and planning should push aside impulse and temporary fixes. We must live and teach integrity over cheating; discipline over quick fixes; patience over impulse, thinking and planning over laissez-faire. A moral compass helps students to better cope with life experiences.
Dr. Lamm says that pushing moral education to the churches or synagogue does not work because the very students who need a moral education are not going to the religious institutions. Morality is much more than going to church, prayer, or listening to sermons. Moral education is learning the natural laws of right and wrong. Natural (or divine) laws transcend human laws. A legislative body could pass a law making an act legal, but that does not make it right or just. The existence of the soul and the divine do not overrule or condemn scientific knowledge.
As I have mentioned before knowledge comes before wisdom. Knowledge grows and ripens into wisdom. Wisdom is the strategic use of the knowledge of the facts to meet the challenge. It does not matter whether you believe in the creation story of the Bible that says human beings are the reason for creation. Creating human beings who are viable, productive members of society is the reason education was created. Respect for the human spirit and a love for learning should be among the goals of higher education.
Q: Why should love of learning be a goal of higher education? What is your definition of the human spirit?
A: Love of learning is one of the most important reasons we became educators. We have to transmit the belief that learning is a life-long activity. Sometimes I have to remind our faculty of this. They need to change and adapt to new challenges and knowledge. The College encourages professional development and individual scholarship. While we don’t have a requirement to publish, we encourage publishing in academic and professional publications. We encourage writing articles in print and electronic publications that support our values of education, knowledge, and wisdom.
The human spirit is that which elevates us above the animal instincts and impulsive behaviors. Thinking, planning, and analysis are human spirit activities. Sleeping and survival eating are part of the animal in us.
These are lofty goals. We have lost track of the idea that higher education has place in the goal of the society. People have lost confidence in the government so much that they embrace “outsider” candidates who claim they can turn around the government and make it “work” for the citizens.
Q: What are the societal goals of higher education?
A: We are answering to the almighty dollar. Some colleges invent programs that could be tuition cash “cows.” They accept foreign students just because they can pay full tuition. Every decision is based on economics rather than looking at the academy as a repository of culture and a hot bed of thinking and creativity. Budgeting does take a large amount of my attention and I don’t want the college to lose money, but we can’t forget why we exist in the first place.
In an article published in Harvard Magazine in 2010 by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry R. Lewis the authors agree with the ideas of Dr. Lamm, but they add the concept of civil responsibility. They state that moral philosophy was an important part of the education in pre-Civil War universities. By the end of the 19th century this required subject was rarely offered. Social science was separated from social work. Science pushed aside moral and religious education. For example Jewish or Christian studies were taught from a cultural point of view rather than a religious or moral viewpoint except at religious institutions. Condliffe and Lagemann propose that every course reflect on social and political issues and raise questions concerning society. Science courses could include discussions on human welfare and how the academic material fits into the destiny of society and the greater world.
Discussions on morality and what kinds of citizens we want living in our community should be part of the academic atmosphere so that we have fewer scoundrels or faculty members who need discipline after shooting off their mouths before the brain starts working.
Q: Let’s take a couple of steps back to reality. Is the college really at the point where the social contract is part of its academic fiber?
A: It is very hard to separate economic pressures from the dream college goals that I mention above. The idea of a social contract with the community and the college is an idea that is being rediscovered in academia. The framers of the Massachusetts constitution recognized the importance in 1780, but today people want too many instant rewards. Dr. Lamm made his proposals in 1986 and I only recently learned about them. May be no one is listening? I listen to reports about the teachers unions, the public schools, and the state government and hear nothing about civic education, moral education, or social contract with the schools. None of these groups talk publically about making better citizens. School boards threaten to fire teachers over test scores. States threaten to measure school success over test scores. But no one repeats the words from Massachusetts, “inculcate the principles of humanity…”
In a way TV and instant answers on the Internet have interfered with learning. Scholarship is slow and tedious. Some lessons take time to sink in. I have to remind the faculty of reasons we exist. Proprietary schools, i.e. profit making higher education, remove the aspects of being the keepers of culture and developers innovation. The concentrate on training students to get a first job.
We have limited resources. I can communicate. I can plan, but I can not create time. I can balance the budget and hopefully allocate resources to further the missions of the college. I can only change my own part of the world.
Q: Thank you very much.
Part thirty-five of the imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 30 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Everything is true, but some details have not yet happened. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.
 The message was first presented at the convocation celebrating the 100th anniversary of Yeshiva University. A version, “A moral mission for colleges,” was published as an op-ed in the New York Times on Oct. 14, 1986 page A35 and another version, “Are we creating ethical illiterates?” appeared in USA Today, March 1988 page 55-56. The New Times version was reprinted in Dr. Lamm’s book: Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, Volume 1 chapter 20 page 214-216. (New York : Ktav, 2001).
 This section is still present in the current constitution, but it was amended. Here is the current version:
The Encouragement of Literature, etc.
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people
 “Renewing Civic Education : Time to restore American higher education’s lost mission.” Harvard Magazine March-April 2012. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from: http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/renewing-civic-education