In his latest New York Times op-ed, David Brooks mourns what he sees as a shift away from the task of moral formation that was once at the heart of higher education. He writes, “academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.”
As a Christian ethicist and a university professor, I have to say that this assessment of the problem is a gross misunderstanding (on several levels) of the very problem he hopes to address. Ultimately, I think Brooks is trying to challenge the threat to the liberal arts that is a clear and present danger in higher ed. For this effort, I applaud him. However, the issues that Brooks raises are complicated and he collapses several distinct and important issues that deserve clarification. Let’s examine three of these.
First, the suggestion that an emphasis on academic research and teaching means that faculty are less interested or involved in character formation is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of research and of teaching, particularly in the humanities.
As an example, my scholarship focuses on a variety of areas of social injustice, including poverty, globalization, reproductive rights, inequality, racism, and privilege. My approach is both descriptive, in that it seeks to describe and analyze particular problems of social injustice and normative, in that I develop standards of justice rooted in (but not exclusive to) Christian tradition that I argue ought to shape and guide the behavior of Christians. While scholarly, my work is clearly about moral formation.
As an ethics professor, much of what I do in the classroom is moral formation. Though, let’s be clear, my role in the classroom is not to teach students what is right and wrong – that is not moral formation, that is catechism. What I mean by moral formation is teaching students how to understand the difference between right and wrong and requiring them to critically examine their own values, worldviews, and beliefs in order to figure out who they are and what they believe.The task of teaching religion at the college level is not to teach students what to believe but rather to teach them how to think.
To suggest that when faculty focus on research and teaching that we (or our universities) are not also engaged in moral formation is simply wrong.
Second, there remain many colleges and universities (mostly private) that not only include character formation in our mission statements but that shape our curricula, classrooms, and campus life around seeking to embody this commitment.
Here is the mission statement of my university:
Elon University embraces its founders’ vision of an academic community that transforms mind, body, and spirit and encourages freedom of thought and liberty of conscience.
Like many private colleges and universities across the country, Elon was founded by a religious institution and continues to identify as “historically-related” to the United Church of Christ (UCC). Our mission reflects the original intentions of our Christian founders while also allowing us to open up to the inclusion of students who practice other faith traditions.
Brooks suggestion that professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription because we “didn’t know what to say” or because we didn’t want to “alienate our diversifying constituencies” betrays a misunderstanding of best practices in teaching and in the changing nature of the college classroom. Professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription precisely because we are professors and not Sunday school teachers and because we stopped assuming that our classrooms were or should be filled with Christian students.
At Elon, as in many institutions across the country, we embody our mission in both our curricular and co-curricular approaches to our students.
On the co-curricular side, instead of a campus ministry or chaplaincy program that focuses exclusively on the needs and formation of Christian students, campuses across the country are responding to the changing demographics of the country and their campuses in creative and meaningful ways.
Two and half years ago, my university built a new multi-faith building that now hosts the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. In addition to a University chaplain, we also have a Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chaplain and a Muslim Life Coordinator on staff.
In our curriculum, the emphasis on critical thinking that guides my own teaching is also a dominant aspect of many academic disciplines and college classrooms, but teaching students how to think critically about ideas (philosophy), religion and belief systems (religious studies), literature (English), and the arts (art history and musicology) is at the heart of the humanities.
After all, studying, understanding, interrogating, critiquing and creating new forms of human culture is the purpose of the humanities and engaging in these pursuits is a fundamental aspect of shaping character and helping young people develop, exercise, and practice their moral muscles. It is the valuing of this traditional aspect of higher education that is most at risk in the current culture which leads me to my last point.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, the threat to the liberal arts is very real and Brooks rightly identifies the increasing problem of professionalism and its impact on higher education. While this problem is most pronounced at public institutions, it is also increasingly impacting private liberal arts institutions as cultural forces question the value of the humanities and seek to replace our moral compass with economic benchmarks.
However, it is important to recognize that the emphasis on professionalism is a direct result of an increased embracing of neoliberalism, which is an extreme (and dis-ordered) form of capitalism. Neoliberalism, which focuses on growth, trade, and deregulation, is also sometimes referred to as laissez-faire or supply-side capitalism. It is also associated with the Reagan era aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats.” While a nice image, thirty-five years of a neoliberal economic approach has only increased inequality in the US and internationally rather than delivering the increased standard of living that this ideology promises to workers.
When we, as a culture, allow an economic ideology like this to infiltrate our minds and hearts and replace our moral compass, it is increasingly difficult for colleges and universities to participate in responsible moral formation. What does it look like when an economic ideology replaces our moral compass, you might ask?
*Instead of recognizing the value of a well-developed mind rich with cultural, historical, and scientific knowledge, an economic ideology only cares about what job you can get after college.
*Instead of valuing a mind that is agile, quick, thoughtful, and able to engage in complex problem-solving in new and varied situations, an economic ideology reduces education to narrowly defined professional training for specific job tracks – nursing, business, communications, teaching (nb. nurses, business and communication professionals and teachers can and often do benefit from broader liberal arts educations).
*Instead of recognizing the value of being able to understand and identify what we mean when we invoke principles like the “common good” or “sustainability” or “social justice,” an economic ideology only cares about cost-benefit ratios, efficiency, and utility.
While there is a generic cultural drift in higher ed as students increasingly track themselves (or are pushed by parents) into pre-professional tracks, the most dangerous aspect of this mentality is evident in right-wing politicians who seek to peg funding of public universities to the ability of graduates to get jobs.
Republican governors in North Carolina, Texas, Florida and Wisconsin have all questioned the value of the liberal arts and humanities degrees at public colleges and universities. In NC, Governor Pat McCrory has taken this to the extreme in his proposed legislation to change the formula for how education money is allocated to public institutions across the state. In 2013 McCrory argued that public funding for community colleges and universities should be “based on how well they do at placing their students in the job market.” In one speech, McCrory stated that he wanted to “reform and adapt the U.N.C. brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the twenty-first century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.”
Clearly McCrory and his cronies haven’t done their homework. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has published two important studies here and here in the past five years that demonstrate employers have a much more robust understanding of “job readiness” than the neoliberal camp and their professionalization buddies.
Certainly, those college administrators who are cutting back or attempting to cut back their support of the liberal arts need to read these reports as well!
No doubt, smart people have to know “stuff,” but they also have to know how to think – critically, morally, analytically, historically, aesthetically – and that is the real value of a liberal arts education.
Perhaps David Brooks ought to talk to some humanities professors before writing his next op-ed about what we do.