Education as Moral Formation: A Localist Proposal


Holland, MI. I heard many fine presentations at Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Culture from November 12-14, and one in particular that piqued my interest was delivered by Shawn Floyd of Malone University. Floyd addressed the issue of character formation in higher education, offering his paper up as a rebuttal to the likes of Stanley Fish and Gilbert Meilaender, both of whom offer variations of the argument that universities neither can nor should engage in the practice of forming the moral character of their students.

The argument against character formation can be summed up as follows: there are no pedagogical means available to accomplish such formation, and no evaluative means by which we could know if we have done so successfully. For Fish (Save the World on Your Own Time), making the attempt to engage in moral formation only distracts us from the job at hand, simply developing a student’s analytical skills and introducing her to a tradition of inquiry. Attempting to do more than this brings us too much into the realms of indeterminacy and contingency. Meilaender’s argument (made in the November 2008 issue of First Things) brings liberal solutions to academic problems. Given the pervasive levels of disagreement among university professors, and the concomitant problems of distrust, professors should agree not to make experiments out of one another’s children. As a father with two children in college, I confess to having great sympathy for this point of view. I’ll agree not to try to form the character of your kids if you agree not to do it to mine. All bets are off if, like Martha Nussbaum, we consider education to be essentially an act of patricide.

Floyd took these arguments head on, using Aquinas’ theory of the virtues to argue that moral formation is ineluctable, so we should be as intentional as possible in doing so. All education, Floyd claimed, tacitly encourages some view of the moral life. Basing his argument on the unity of the virtues, Floyd demonstrated that the academy can’t operate, indeed professors can’t do precisely what Fish and Meilaender suggest they ought to do, without somehow working to develop the intellectual virtues. Without encouraging the virtues of honesty, generosity, charity, industry, diligence, docility, and so forth, it is hard to see how students would be capable of any intellectual work.

Floyd’s presentation focused largely on the role of the cardinal virtues (courage, justice, temperance, prudence) in developing exemplary intellectual practices. They are key to the intellectual habits that alone can lead to the awakening of the mind and to a functioning academic community; for only when these virtues are operative can we evaluate each other’s work (justice), or make the right sorts of decisions as to what students should or should not be subjected to (prudence), or learn how to affirm what we believe to be true (courage), and to avoid the temptations that distract us from the tasks at hand (temperance). These are examples of how the cardinal virtues ground all intellectual activity.

Now it is not necessarily true that any person who demonstrates intellectual facility will be a virtuous person in all areas of life. Indeed, the academy is replete with highly gifted scoundrels. But intellectual activity is impossible without the possession of some virtue, and well-intentioned development of the most robust type will thus try to form students as fully as possible.

The operation of the intellect cannot happen in a vacuum. Students will take what skills, abilities, and habits they have developed out into a world where those skills will be employed toward other ends. Without the right sorts of moral discernment, well-developed intellectual gifts become especially pernicious. I believe that one of the things we learn from the Platonic dialogues is that philosophy is always a battle for the souls of the youth of the city. Socrates generally engages in conversation when prompted by the confused and anguished questioning of the young men of Athens, desperate for guidance when they intuit their teachers have let them down. Gorgias discovers to his horror that his rhetorical instruction results in the like of Polus. In other words, we are instructed to see the development of the intellect not simply as an expression of specific virtues, but as incorporated into knowledge of worthy purposes. Many of the virtues of the modern academy, thus, would be mere simulacra rather than actual virtues.

If this is true, then the academy has no choice but to be intentional not only about the development of the student’s intellectual virtues, but also in instructing them as to what sorts of human ends are choiceworthy. This would require that faculty themselves be properly instructed in what is genuinely good. Faculty and students would be bound together in an intellectual community dedicated to knowledge of what is good, true, and beautiful.

As attractive as this picture is, I have serious doubts about its feasibility. My reservations fall along three lines: whether it is too late to do anything with most of the students in our classes; whether we have the means to do anything with them; and whether we have the right sorts of academic communities.

By the time a student gets to college their character is pretty well cast. There are two main sources of instruction in virtue for young children: parents, and the customs or mores of the surrounding village. As regards the students in my classes, I know nothing about how their parents have formed their character, and what I know of the culture gives me grave concern. They’ve been breathing polluted air for a long time. I am not sanguine about my ability to undo what the culture has done, or to get their attention enough to have them think that such undoing might be a good idea. Undoubtedly some students are open to full intellectual and moral formation, but I can’t presume anything about any one of them a priori, and in the short time I have with them it would be difficult for me to identify their potential.

Furthermore, what we can claim to know about the development of the brain would indicate to us that we don’t have infinitely malleable material on our hands. We can undoubtedly engage in some shaping, but it’s not clear exactly how plastic the 18 year-old brain is. It appears to be the case that students will not experience significant cognitive differentiation during their years at college in the sense that students who score in the 50th percentile on their SATs are likely also to score in the same percentile when they graduate. In other words, we are working with recalcitrant mental material. I suspect that a university education might be too late in their physical and cultural development to accomplish this robust view of moral formation.

Second, even if I were to concede that such development was possible, it’s not clear exactly how that can be accomplished, especially within a four-year period. Aristotle entered the Academy at about the age of 18, but stayed there for nearly 20 years. We don’t have that sort of luxury. Within the confines and expectations of the contemporary classroom, I am at a loss to see how such development can be systematically performed.

This leads me to my final point: namely, the modern academy is ill-equipped to perform the task of moral formation. If we take seriously Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that every moral theory presupposes a sociology, then I fail to see how the sociology of the modern academy can support a theory of education as soulcraft. There are at least three barriers to such a project: 1) the ideological fracturing of the professorate and the loss of any shared tradition or beliefs; 2) the size and scope of the modern academy; and, 3) the reduction of the academy into the service of the modern state. I won’t here go into how all this has come to pass, but I believe the claims are easily demonstrated. Neither can I go into all the implications of these claims. That consumerism has overtaken the modern academy is a truism that permeates everything we do. Instead, I will make some suggestions about how we might reimagine the academy in such a way that moral formation could become a possibility.

Suggestion 1: We need to scale back the size of our academic communities. The larger the school, the larger the classroom and the greater the opportunities for anonymity, and with that the temptations of sloth. Even at a smaller liberal arts college such as the one at which I teach, I have to be selective in terms of the number of students I can get to know. Such personal knowledge is a prerequisite for attending to their moral development. Without knowing anything about their character as it is, how could I possibly know what would be good for them in their development, and what would be the most appropriate means? If a student hands in a paper late is it because they are going through a personal crisis, or because they have taken on too much, or because they have a bad habit of procrastinating? If I ask them this point blank, will they tell me the truth, or will they kill off their grandmother to get an extension? I have no way of knowing, and the larger the social unit, the less I can know the answers to concerns of this nature. I can’t know the sorts of questions that haunt them, or the sorts of vices they are prone to.

This suggestion wouldn’t be hard to employ if we devalued a four-year degree. The fact is that many students are going to college who lack the intellectual ability necessary to do well. I don’t know what the magic number is for the proper size of a college, but instinctively I believe it to be substantially less than a thousand. Furthermore, a smaller faculty makes it more likely that you can have people who are mutually committed to a shared tradition. We need to think more in terms in inter-institutional pluralism and less in terms of intra-institutional pluralism.

Suggestion 2: Change our admissions processes. Rather than taking the easy way out with quantitative measures such as GPAs and standardized test scores as our determining criteria, we need to take time to get to know prospective students and their parents. If the parents prove to be bad people, we need to think two or three times about admitting their child. We ought to know something about their leisure activities. This process will become easier if we think of colleges as serving local communities rather than chasing the brass ring of a national reputation and a high USNews ranking. Colleges like to brag that they have students from 47 states and 83 countries on their campus, but I confess the virtue of that is not self-evident to me. In terms of their range of services, their educational purpose, their land use, and their architecture, colleges ought to attempt to weave themselves into the life of the city.

In the meantime, incremental steps can be taken. My college does an excellent job at nurturing town/gown relations. It is the cultural as well as the geographical center of the city. The college, under the “Walk to Work” program, provides substantial financial incentives to encourage faculty and staff to purchase housing close to campus. It has been studiously attentive to the edges of the campus and its connection to the city.

Suggestion 3: Along these lines, I believe it would be a wonderful thing if schools got together and decided not to play the accreditation game anymore. It’s not clear exactly whose interests accreditation serves, other than effecting a certain homogenization of the educational task that would allow the student “products” to move easily between institutions.

Or, furthermore, accreditation becomes important only to schools for whom credentials are important. I refer the reader here to William James’ brilliant 1903 essay “The PhD Octopus.” James wrote:

“I beg the reader to consider some of the secondary evils which I have enumerated. First of all, is not our growing tendency to appoint no instructors who are not also doctors an instance of pure sham? Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever. Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand; and to exclude the former by a rigid rule, and in the end to have to sift the latter by private inquiry into their personal peculiarities among those who know them, just as if they were not doctors at all, is to stultify one’s own procedure. You may say that at least you guard against ignorance of the subject by considering only the candidates who are doctors; but how then about making doctors in one subject teach a different subject? This happened in the instance by which I introduced this article, and it happens daily and hourly in all our colleges. The truth is that the Doctor-Monopoly in teaching, which is becoming so rooted an American custom, can show no serious grounds whatsoever for itself in reason. As it actually prevails and grows in vogue among us, it is due to childish motives exclusively. In reality it is but a sham, a bauble, a dodge, whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.”

James’ complaints are spot on, and the trend he saw in 1903 has only gotten worse with time. Our universities are populated with persons with narrow technical abilities who operate with suspect morals to problematic ends.

Suggestion 4: Strongly consider residency requirements for faculty and students. This proposal, of course, flies in the face of the American sense of privacy, but it need not. It is no difficult task to structure a college in such a way that faculty can live on the campus with only minor violations of their privacy. Brooks Honor College at Baylor University is a fine example of attentive design that creates a genuine community between faculty and students, surrounding them with beauty (in Waco, of all places!) and forcing them to get to know each other.

Suggestion 5: Forget everything we think we know about pedagogy, a field dominated by innovators who claim they understand the best practices; that is, until a new fad comes along. Take TVs out of the classrooms, and the internet too. Have a wireless campus in the best sense of the term. Find instructors who both know and love their material, and have talent for lecturing and Socratic questioning. Get rid of student evaluations – make administrators and teachers hold each other accountable.

Suggestion 6: Rethink the way we evaluate students. Instead of assigning them grades, keep them under our tutelage until we are satisfied they know what they are talking about, and can bear the name of the school with honor. Students will be motivated to work harder if they know they can’t move on until they have satisfied the standards of their professor.

Suggestion 7: Eliminate all federal funding for colleges and universities. Students who are in financial need can be taken care of by employing them in the local community, as well as helping to sustain the campus. If the economy of the college is properly established, the costs are likely to be quite low. Colleges should quit being whores for government money, and likewise focusing on “producing” graduates who will be good producers and consumers in a mass economy.

I have little hope that these suggestions will take root any time soon. Still, I have reason to believe the current model of higher education is not sustainable. At some point employers and prospective employees both are going to realize that a liberal arts education is not a prerequisite for many of the jobs that are out there. Given the careerist impetus of many of our students, such realization will lead to an immediate decline in enrollment. Coupled with our financial crises and demographic changes and the conclusion suggests itself: there are colleges that will not survive this storm. Once the rot of wealth is stripped away, there could be a renewed call for schools that shape moral character, not ones that ideologically indoctrinate. At that time, such suggestions might seem prescient.

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