On Character and Education Again, Part III

When I was a young faculty member some years ago we often engaged in some fairly intense discussion about the role of the university in the life of the student. Some of the old assumptions needed to be challenged, to be sure. “The Times They Are a-Changin,” the great Bob Dylan reminded us so eloquently during those years. The younger generation of the ‘60s and ‘70s thought they were a generation of destiny, changing everything. They thought they were in the driver’s seat when it came to setting the rules of any game.

And of course as a very young faculty member, I found myself on the side of the student much of the time. We needed to end in loco parentis once and for all, that notion that the university should stand in the place of the parent. We felt we needed to give our students more room to grow and make their own choices. We needed to get out of their way. This kind of new freedom was essential for their own growth, indeed for the formation of character.

But then this whole cultural debate turned deadly serious. The questions began to broaden into a challenge of all authority. Who needs parents to show the way? Who needs the adult generation? Who needs institutions of any sort? Who needs the rich heritage of tradition of any sort? As the provocative, mid-20th century social and political philosopher Hannah Arendt began to observe, we had entered into a damaging era of an outright “crisis of authority.” All authority was under suspicion.

At just this time, the American university almost completely stepped out of the business of setting standards for our students. We began to believe we should turn our students loose to define their own moral universe. We began to believe it was just too difficult, in a contested and conflicted culture, to teach character. Our focus as universities began to turn away from teaching such things as integrity, honesty, decency, kindness, regard for the common good, notions of genuine community. We began to focus almost exclusively on teaching for competency in the professions. We began to adopt a posture of suspicion and even cynicism when it comes to resources out of the past for guidance in such matters.

In an extraordinary article in The Atlantic some years ago, David Brooks says that “today’s students do not inherit a concrete and articulated moral system.” And alarmingly, the university does not have “a set of ideals to instruct [these] privileged men and women on how to live, how to see their duties, and how to call upon their highest efforts.”

And why not? Because we made “‘the decision that these are adults and this is not our job,’” Brooks quotes one dean from Princeton. “When it comes to character and virtue,” says Brooks, “these young people have been left on their own . . . go figure out what is true and just for yourselves.”

“We assume,” says Brooks, “that each person has to solve these questions alone (though few other societies in history have made this assumption). We assume that if adults try to offer moral instruction, it will just backfire, because our children will reject our sermonizing (though they don’t seem to reject any other part of our guidance and instruction). We assume that such questions have no correct answer that can be taught.”

But, then, and here is the kicker for me: “Maybe the simple truth, is that adult institutions no longer try to talk about character and virtue because they simply wouldn’t know what to say.”

Hannah Arendt makes a comment I like so much: “Education . . . is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Arendt beautifully balances both sides of this task of educating for character. On the one hand I feel very strongly that we must educate in such a way that we do not exclude our students from the wisdom of the ages that precedes them on just these questions. We need to pass on the secrets of the tribe. We need to give them a story of what is true and good and beautiful.

But we must also be very careful not “to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new.” They do indeed need the freedom to explore and discover and make their choices. And we who are doing the educating always have much to learn from them. It is this balance we must achieve, and we must live within the tension that often crops out in the process.

Frankly, and this may be a controversial point, I believe students come seeking some kind of guidance on these matters. As Jesus says in Matthew, I think they come asking for bread. I think they come seeking some understanding of what has been taught over the ages to be true and good, healthy and helpful. How can we go silent on just these issues so critical to their lives and ultimately critical to our society for the future?

When they come asking for bread, then, can we possibly hand them a stone? Don’t we have to figure out, complex and challenging though it is, how to teach for character?

Oh, there is much more to say on this subject. And I am grateful for the good discussion that has appeared on the blog. Thank you for your comments. They are very helpful and stimulating.