Education as Moral Formation: A Localist Proposal

by Jeffrey Polet on November 21, 2009 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

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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.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dtenny November 21, 2009 at 2:09 am

I have straight forward views:

Shcools should educate.(Period)

Church is responsable for teaching religion and faith.(period)

Parents are responsable for teaching, respect, morality, dicipline and everything not covered above. (Period)

I believe in separation of Church and State. (Period)

If parents want to send thier children to Religious schools, that is thier right. (Period)

If religious centers and shools want to argue about not recieving the same funding as puplic schools, read part four above.

D.A.Tenny

avatar James Matthew Wilson November 21, 2009 at 10:25 am

Truly superb, Jeff. This essay begins where I would have it: with the problem of Fish and Meilander, who both misconceive the university on a model of liberal society but for opposite reasons, diagnoses our malodorous condition precisely, and offers up a comprehensive platform of reforms. I’ve written on these questions myself, but I don’t think I have seen anyone offer this thorough a critique and positive vision. Perhaps it is good enough that its self-evidence to academics of good will will provide some kind of momentum against the inertia with which we are all too familiar.

On a related note, what a shame that I only spoke with Shawn regarding Big 10 football. You should have directed our conversation down this fruitful avenue. Shame upon shame that I missed his talk.

avatar Cecelia November 21, 2009 at 6:49 pm

I would certainly agree that all education tacitly encourages some awareness of a moral life but I seriously doubt that we are going to be able in significant ways affect moral development in the 18 year olds showing up at the doorstep of a college or University.

First, moral development begins in infancy and by the time one is 16 you are making reasoned judgements based on already established moral principles. Colleges and Universities show up too late in the child’s life to significantly affect moral development.

Second, it is the responsibility of the family to inculate morality in their children. How can we bemoan the influence of public schools or vigorously protest any attempt on the part of government to influence moral development in our children – but happily accept that professors at colleges and universities will some how be grand examples of morality? It is no less heinous to have professors at higher ed institutions subvert the role of the family than it would be if government did it.

Third, there is a reason families are responsible for moral development in children – the family and the crucible of the family enviornment – has the greatest effect on children. Whatever is done poorly by the family will not be undone by a University. One does not end up in therapy because a college professor traumatized you! The best one can expect is that a well taught child will find their values reinforced by the normative environment of the University.

Fourth, your remarks re: a doctorate being the only measure of competence are worthy but there is a significant number of non- doctorates at most colleges and Universities now. People with a demonstrated expertise are welcomed in Universities although one could encourage this more. The issue becomes however – how do we evaluate “demonstrated expertise”? That one is a good teacher is not enough – one must also have mastery over the subject.

Fifth, how do we satisfy ourselves that students know enough? Does my University have one standard and yours another? We have pass/fail systems in place at my school already and I am not sure that they have contributed to “moral development” nor have they improved mastery of content.

Sixth, your suggestion that students can finance their educations by finding employment in the local community is – given the current job situation – unrealistic. Perhaps in a better economy this might be possible but it certainly is not now. Given the cyclical nature of local economies, how could you assure continuity of employment and hence continuity of education? And why is the acceptance of federal money more egregious than the acceptance of state or donor money? I would suggest that the elimination of loans to finance education would be desireable. The level of indebtedness accrued by so many students is appalling and certainly the pressure to pay those loans off drives these graduates into jobs that neither contribute to the community nor contribute to personal satisfaction.

If our students grow up in homes where constant consumption is the norm what can we do in four years to undo that? If the child is bombarded with “consume to be happy” messages that permeate our society, how much can we do to counteract that? We should not concede defeat on this issue but we must admit we are fighting very powerful influences.

I do agree that creating genuine communities at a college where faculty and students live together can contribute to a more effective learning environment. The notion of residential colleges where faculty, grad students and undergrads live together is one way to address this.

I would suggest that the best we can do is teach – create that awareness which will help students who come to us with a moral foundation already to make the necessary connections.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 21, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Some years ago, visiting a Unitarian church to which some friends belong, I saw a pamphlet by a Unitarian minister, who critiqued the common attitude among parents who try to see themselves as liberal, that they don’t want to prejudice their children’s choices. The minister observed, your child is an empty glass, so if you don’t pour your values into them, someone else will come along and do so.

I think that is a good starting point for dealing with morals, even in college. Students come to college with fairly full glasses, but they do make a lot of choices, some major life-changing choices, during and immediately after their college years. While they are a little old for the kind of enforced moral discipline that Harvard attempted around 1800 or so, the presence of moral values in the community that surrounds them is important. I am choosing to do something my community generally disapproves of is different from, nobody cares, we are all doing our own thing. Then, I am choosing to do something my community generally disapproves of for strong moral reasons, is different from, I just want to cut loose.

What moral standards should a college impart, or at least infuse? There is room for some localism. A private college may teach, for example, that homosexuality is contrary to God’s plan for humanity. A public university probably could not. Both could teach honesty, courage, perseverance, even work ethic. Notre Dame could teach trans-substantiation, a Methodist college would not, and should not. Should Notre Dame expel a Roman Catholic students who writes a legal brief sustaining Roe v. Wade? Well, they can, I wouldn’t approve, but they are not accountable to me. Moral standards should, generally, be the broad and universal ones, but there are some who think specific dogma or doctrine is morally of greater importance than honesty and courage.

avatar Dtenny November 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Run hard and fast from the Siarlys Jenkins’ of the world, who would impose there morality on free adults.
I object to the term “Liberal” and should insert “any” in the first paragraph. The lack of morals is not defined by politics.
Parents need to instill moral certitudes to thier young children.In this I agree. I would not agree with anyone who is bent on usurping my athority with my children no matter how old the are.
The collwge experience, beyond education, is learning to socialize, form and strenghten your own opinions. It is not the place for educators to impose thier own morality on the students.
In all hopes that you do not succeed in the endevor:
Sincerely DAT

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 21, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Darn, I can’t tell if Dtenny is a flaming liberal or a homeschooling conservative. Morals can never be DEFINED by politics, but we all suffer if there are NO morals at all IN politics. Why shouldn’t George Washington Plunkett “seen my chances and I took them”? Why shouldn’t a student cheat on a test or plagiarize? They are adults after all, it is not the place for educators to impose their morality on students! There has to be a deft touch here, and many have gotten it wrong. The key point is, what weave of morals does THIS community need in order to survive, function, thrive, and be of service to its participants? And that will vary from one college to another. It should. With a sufficient marketplace of choices, parents can find, or free 18 year old adults who don’t care what their parents want can find, a community suited to their aspirations, shaped by 17 years of growing up under parental supervision.

avatar Dtenny November 21, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Siarlys,
What does it matter? And I said nothing about “no morals at all in politics” Don’t upset youself about a pamplet you read, that I found objectional language in. Unless it was you opinion and the finding of pamplet made the story flow better.

I have objection for someone who think that professors should be responsible for teaching a student what moriality they think should be best for this/that community.
In reading the essay and comments I invision a maze, some rats and cheese.
I am certian there already exist consiquences for a person who lies, steals cheats or plagiarizes. Is that not sufficient? That you want to use a “deft touch” to bring them to the correct moral conduct is mildly Owellian.
College’s cannot make utopias by redefining, however subltey, the morality of its students. A few students will, lie, steal, or cheat no matter what type of university thet be found in. You want to make cog’s, not educated adults ready for the real world.

leave the moral lessons up to thier parents and religion.
Dtenny

avatar Bruce Smith November 22, 2009 at 8:47 am

It is always going to be the case that the young will want to receive guidance on how they should perceive their lives. The popularity amongst students of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” lectures at Harvard University is indicative of this. Central to this perception has to be the nature of human beings and the nature of money because both historically have caused great conflict. We now know from concentrated effort from a wide variety of different disciplines over the last twenty years that human beings although subject to tension between self-concern and other-concern are at the end of the day primarily focused on social cohesion because the species flourishes better through cooperation. Money, however, seems to have a life of its own that seems to demand self-concerned freedom. It wants to go like ether, or quicksilver, where there is a capital investment need and where profit can be maximized, China being a good example. Indeed we seem to now have a situation where money has gone “virtual” to create “casino capitalism” and piggy-backs on real need in order to concentrate on maximizing profit, hedge funds being a good example. It is the understanding that many of the world’s problems result from the tension between the hard-wired desire for social cohesion and freedom to profit that young people need to know. They also need to know the implications for the viability of the planet. Only after understanding these things does it then becomes possible to see that human lives can best be lived by trying to reconcile human nature and money, to attempt to channel the use of money for the purposes of social cohesion and sustainability of planetary and human life.Our morals and religions stem from these concerns and all in the end concerned with dealing with entropy.

avatar Richard H November 22, 2009 at 11:12 am

I see a couple of things that would constitute clear improvements over our current way of doing things.
1. We drop the myth that we can avoid moral education in higher education (whether that education be introductory, enhancing, undermining, etc.).
2. Having recognized that there is a moral dimension in all education, we have or develop institutions that are clear about their moral enterprise. As a parent (or student, or educator), I could then lean toward an institution that represented the same moral tradition in which I considered myself a participant.

This would allow for great diversity – more than we have now – while enhancing honesty. I do agree with you, that such institutions will likely be much smaller than what we now have.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 22, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Dtenny: learn how to spell, and how to write a sentence in the English language. When you have mastered these basics, you may be able to communicated intelligently on the subject of morals.

avatar amazona November 22, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Amen! I totally agree with you. As an older graduated student and a parent I think you hit it right on the head. Where is this college you are describing, can I get a job there when I finish my Phd?

A string of thoughts:

Character formation happens in the early years.
You can’t trust the professorship with your children’s moral education.
They don’t even know what they believe in most cases.
There is no way to go back to the past.

Small is beautiful!

avatar Aaron Schroeder November 24, 2009 at 2:09 am

I don’t know whether I disagree with anything in this post, but I’m just having a hard time squaring the urgency of your suggestions with my experience in college.

As a newly minted college grad from a small school where a degree of moralizing made its way into the classroom, when I read Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time last summer, I found that the professors who did the most work in making me think about the life of virtue were the ones who fit Fish’s mold of good professorship. They were, by and large, good teachers of American Literature, English Romantic Poetry, Modern Philosophy and Philosophy of Language–that is, of the disciplines they were trained in. They published with some frequency interesting not overly-technical or overly-specialized work in subfields in those disciplines. And by and large, it was the material they taught me that led to a kind of moral education, rather than the sort of personal relationships and one-on-one attention you mention here–though such have been quite meaningful, as well.

I guess I’d like to hear from others: am I alone in experiencing this phenomenon? That is, were the professors who most inspired you to some kind of attention to the moral life (if they did at all) ones who ‘attended intentionally to your moral development’ or were they the ones who, in many ways, exemplified that moral life through work they did as conduits for and contributors to a largely disciplinary body of knowledge?

avatar Jeffrey Polet November 27, 2009 at 9:25 am

Thank you for your comments. I think the single largest objection I have received to this posting concerns the malleability of the mind of the average college-age student. Obviously education assumes some level of plasticity, but how this relates exactly to the formation of character is not totally clear to me. I don’t know for sure the answer to these things. I do suspect that for many of us we fear are students are too malleable when it comes to a certain kind of instruction or indoctrination, and not enough when it comes to another. That, of course, is part of the problem: there are too many of my colleagues I simply don’t trust.

I recently had a conversation with a graduating senior who told me that her English major matched seamlessly to her Political Science major for in the former they were always reading literature that dealt with political and social issues. This comment depressed me immensely, and not only because (with apologies to Wilson and Peters) most English professors sound like idiots when they talk about politics, but also because students aren’t learning to appreciate literature as literature.

Such politicizing of all subjects reflects an absence of prudence and fidelity, virtues related to a good education. For this reason, Fish and Schroeder are right when they point out that professors ought to teach a discipline of inquiry and that education becomes dull when they politicize or indoctrinate. I don’t think anything in my essay gainsays this claim. Moral formation occurs in the nooks and crannies of education. For example, if I have the students reading Marx, I have an obligation to teach the text employing the virtues of generosity (what’s the best possible argument for the claim Marx is making here?), charity, honesty, and so forth, while at the same time locating such arguments within a larger understanding of what is good and true. These issues are not settled with reference to technique, but are enacted prudentially but those who know their stuff, but can communicate such knowledge in terms of the good life. Modeling would become decisive in this regard.

avatar Mark Adderley November 28, 2009 at 10:53 am

These are interesting comments. Over the last sixteen years, I have taught mostly at public institutions, at one Presbyterian college of a mostly secular nature, and, my current institution, a conservative Catholic college.

I’d observe, first, that it’s virtually impossible to teach without conveying, usually quite subtly and often without your own knowledge, your moral values. Stanley Fish teaches relativist moral values, but doesn’t, I’m sure, consider them to be moral values at all. The thing I’ve enjoyed most about teaching at a Catholic college is that I don’t have to pretend I’m not teaching with moral values. I can, in other words, be honest. More important than this, though, is the fact that my students don’t have the impression that I’m being completely impartial. I don’t give them the impression that I’m morally neutral, so they don’t have to decode that along with all the other matters they have to decode–the meaning of Dante and Chaucer and so forth.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as a morally neutral discourse. It’s nice to be able to quite pretending there is.

Second, on the matter of doctorates. Obviously, the possession of a doctorate doesn’t guarantee that its possessor is a gifted teacher. However, the possession of a doctorate rather than simply a master’s degree does guarantee a certain level of exposure to higher education–often breeding a certain healthy skepticism about the whole process–that is useful. It’s not perhaps useful in the classroom, but it is in the necessary “backstage” venues of committees, faculty meetings, and so forth.

One of the institutions at which I taught for several years had a habit of employing folks without doctorates. Part of the reason for this was financial–you don’t have to pay an MA as much as a PhD. I think there’s a real problem employing someone in an institution that supposedly holds education in high regard if the person has only one or two years’ more education than the institution’s graduates.

I wouldn’t exclude someone from employment on the mere basis of not holding a doctorate; but the MA would certainly have to demonstrate something so superior that it would make up for an additional five years of education.

Hiring is a matter that should be taken very seriously by all institutions and, unfortunately, it is now a buyer’s market. There are far more PhDs than jobs. It’s worth taking the time to find the right match–a person isn’t going to be happy in his or her job, after all, if he or she isn’t a good match.

Cheers,
Mark Adderley,
Wyoming Catholic College.

avatar Jeffrey Polet November 28, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Mark,

Thank you for your comments. I too have found that one of the advantages of teaching at a Christian liberal arts college is that you can be more explicit about what you are doing, and thus with more integrity. Part of the reason why Fish and Meilaender wrote what they did is because their colleagues are being very explicit, and not in a good way. It makes hash out of the idea of a UNIversity.

As to your second point, I would object to the way the labor market in higher education is currently operating. Assuming the market as is, your comments make sense: that is, if we want to have standardization and high degrees of mobility among the professorate. Even then, however, I think the way we hire is patently absurd. In essence, we are being asked to marry someone on the basis of one date. Someone might show up very well for that one or two day interview, but a couple of years later you could have a huge headache on your hands. For that reason, I would like the academic labor market to be reconstructed so that no one is offered a tenure-track position on the basis of one interview. I recognize that this would alter the incentive system, but then again if everyone does it no one school would be at a disadvantage. This would give schools more flexibility in determining the rightness of a person over a period of a couple of years. I can’t think of any other labor market that does things as absurdly as the academy does, with the possible exception of the medical profession. But then again, soulcraft is both trickier and more important than care of the body.

Having been a full-time college/university teacher now for 18 years, I have seen enough people with doctorates who are incompetent to make me question the wisdom of the whole enterprise. I have been on enough searches to know that a) letters of recommendation are nearly worthless; and, b) in the pressure of having to make a decision with limited information, departments will often make decisions for very odd reasons. Since we know so little about their teaching abilities, their commitment to the school, or how they will handle tenure, we tend to hire them on other criteria, often arbitrary, with frequent bad results.

avatar Jeffrey Polet December 1, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Cecelia,

I don’t know how unrealistic it is. Look, for example, at the Labor Program at Berea College. Students receive full tuition scholarships in exchange for their participation, as well as a stipend.

http://www.berea.edu/laborprogram/about.asp

avatar Mark Adderley December 1, 2009 at 8:36 pm

You make good point, Jeff. I think, though, that the main problem with the higher education labor market is greed. Essentially, our problem is that there are far more PhD graduates than there are jobs for them. The reason there are so many PhD graduates is that they’ve been taken into departments primarily as cheap labor for the huge number of freshman classes universities offer. The reason there are so many freshman classes is because universities have become indiscriminate about how many students they accept–they’re more interested in making large amounts of money than in accepting the right kind and number of students.

The only solution is to be much more careful about who you offer tenure to, if you have to offer tenure. (In my experience, anyway, tenure is simply something that senior professors use to bully junior professors and get lazy about their teaching.)

I too have met many PhD’d professors who are incompetent teachers. But all other things being equal, it’s surely better to hire a PhD than someone with a Master’s degree, just because the PhD involves an extra five years of education. That has to be something we value! The five years is just long enough to begin to get healthily cynical about higher education–notice how many folks drop out of their programs before they finish their dissertations. It also confers a certain depth of knowledge–someone with only a Master’s level education is only two years ahead of the seniors s/he is teaching.

The lack of a doctorate is sometimes–not always–evidence that the professor lacked an interest in education, and simply wanted a job. The Master’s degree was the minimum requirement. I’ve had many colleagues who fell into that category. I’m not altogether sure that sort of lack of initiative needs to be rewarded.

Cheers,
Mark Adderley (www.markadderley.net).

avatar Alfredo December 19, 2009 at 6:11 am

The highest good is happiness. We attain happiness by the development and exercise of virtue. The highest good of the city is the same as the highest good of the individual. And how much greater is the highest good for the many than the individual.

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