July 11, 2005

To Nurture Greater Ethical Awareness, Students Need Practice in Moral Discernment

In offering his comments on an article entitled The Corrosion of Ethics in Higher Education, Joseph Knippenberg of No Left Turns quotes one excerpt from the article:

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...

Knippenberg then offers his own commentary on the article:

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...either to promote virtue or to avoid its corruption.

...Students come to us not quite fully formed, but nevertheless pretty far down the moral path they’re going to take...We can do our darndest to undermine the commitments and character our students bring to campus. Or we can strengthen them at the margins...

Let me state this...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.

...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...

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"he 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."

A basic problem with this, of course is the basic disagreement on a fundamental consensus of what this would represent. Even in secular law I think we have a deep rift(or rifts) in what is considered morality and value. You cannot teach in the way you are suggesting for the outcome you hope for without some convictions on the basic standards.

We are now a double minded people, and until we get that decided, in majority, we can't move forward in this area.

Posted by: ilona at July 11, 2005 1:48 PM