Saturday, November 26, 2005

On Teaching about Values

A new debate emerging at my college is whether higher education is just about intellectual development, or whether it should also be about moral development.

Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides. Some strenuously argue against moral development. Values, they say, are up to individuals to choose. It is inappropriate for some people to impose their values on others.

There are interesting assumptions behind this line of reasoning. One assumption is that to talk about values at all is already somehow dangerous or invasive. Another assumption is that we cannot talk about values without trying to impose particular values on others. Another assumption is that "imposing" values is somehow easy! It is so easy that we have to be really really careful, lest we "impose" values unwittingly! Another assumption is that we as individuals and our culture are not already trying strenuously all the time to impose values -- and often succeeding. And the final and most fun assumption to point out is the (erroneous) assumption that the plea not to impose values is not itself a value! If those who argue against teaching about values win, then they have succeeded in "imposing" their value (of non-imposition) upon everyone else -- and, worse: to have succeeded in imposing a value of non-imposition is self-contradictory!

So, let us look at the other side: can a case be made in favor of encouraging moral development? How can we do this without falling into some very real dangers?

I myself do believe that talking about values and morality is not bad or dangerous. It is important. I also think that we institutionally impose values all the time, in many institutional contexts -- and many of the values we impose are questionable. I think this makes it even more urgent to talk about this, and to raise awareness.

For example, it is common for professors to mark down work that is submitted late. This is a structural imposition of the value of timeliness. But is timeliness always the most important virtue? Sometimes it is quite important -- responding quickly to genuine emergencies is important and often can make the difference between life and death. But we create so many artificial deadlines and artificial urgencies, and some of these can be more harmful than helpful. For example, they can destroy creativity. They can undermine good, thoughtful, careful discernment. Not always is timeliness the most important virtue. But we structure it in to so much of what we do, cultivating an unthinking obedience to this imperative. It is an imperative that serves another value: "productivity." We don't stop to question whether productivity is itself always good. We unthinkingly accept that quantity matters more than quality. We produce so much that we may well be destroying our planet in the process.

I think it could be very powerful to have discussions about all of this in our teaching. Without these discussions, our students just buy right into all of our cultural assumptions, believing that they have freely chosen, when really they remain steadfastly unaware of how many values have been "imposed" upon them already. It is only if we all talk about this out loud that there is any hope that people develop the awareness that is necessary for genuine choice of values.

In contrast, I have become aware of how hard it is to impose values directly, through conversational attempts to persuade. This is why I am not at all afraid that, if we talk about values, we will "unwittingly" impose values. As soon as they are out in the open air of free conversation, they can be critically examined. I have learned this through teaching ethics courses. To my absolute and total dismay, even though I present compelling arguments against ethical relativism and try to "impose" the value of at least taking ethics seriously (but still feeling free to identify which specific values and virtues are most meaningful to you), I find that most students leave ethics courses more convinced of ethical relativism than ever before. This is true in general, of ethics classes everywhere. I knew this before I even started and so I tried explicitly to guard against this, but to no avail. So, seeing my own powerlessness to even persuade students to take seriously the general idea of ethics, I have absolutely no fear that I -- or anyone else -- could ever impose any specific beliefs whatsoever. It really is up to individuals to choose their beliefs.

So my tentative conclusion is that where beliefs and values are imposed, it is not through teaching or conversation or reading books. Imposition happens through subtle attempts to control behavior. And these attempts abound in our society. The most effective antidote is to teach about ethics and values explicitly, giving everyone a chance to take stock and re-evaluate what their beliefs and values really are.

Having said all of that, now I would like to note: I think the closest principle that comes to an ethical absolute in our culture today is the principle of non-imposition. It often gets phrased as a statement of ethical relativism: "there are no absolutes; it is up to each individual to choose their own ethical beliefs." Put that way, it is self-contradictory, because it poses as an ethical absolute itself! The other self-contradictory form it can take is what I described above: the desire to impose a value of non-imposition!

But I cannot simply argue against ethical relativism without being open about my own take on what the ethical absolute is. After thinking about this for a long time, I came up with a single ethical absolute that I believe in completely -- and it turns out to be identical to one of Immanual Kant's expressions of his "categorical imperative" (the third formulation, for those who want to know. See Kant's Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals). My way of putting it is to say: everyone deserves respect. Or, it could be rephrased: we owe everyone respect.

I've talked about this before, but I don't think in those earlier postings I mentioned it as an ethical absolute. But I do think it is.

Of course the content of that principle hinges on what is meant by "respect." I've talked about this before as well, but I'd like to simplify and summarize it here as: looking for, responding to, and trying to draw out the goodness of others. It is a principle rooted in the belief that there is goodness in everyone. But it is also a principle that respects that people might not always be acting from their best (good) selves. And so it is fully consistent for "respectful" behavior to include calling others into accountability for their disrespectful behavior.

And this is an important point to understand. I do not think that the value of non-imposition is an integral part of respect. In general, it is respectful to let people be who they are and not to try to control others' behavior. But this is not itself an absolute rule. There are specific exceptions to this rule: when others engage in disrespectful behavior, it is respectful to call them into accountability. It is respectful both on behalf of the disrespected, but it is also respectful on behalf of the person being disrespectful, because it calls them away from their problematic behavior and attitudes and calls them back to their best selves.

Put another way: you are doing someone a favor if you stop them from doing something really bad that they will later regret.

I have offered this principle (the principle of respect) as a proposed ethical absolute in one of my classes, and my students have been doing a great job of arguing against it, trying to turn it into something inconsistent -- but to no avail. I have, so far, been able to respond effectively to each of their attempts. Will I succeed in "imposing" this value by the end of the semester? If so, will I have hopelessly damaged these unfortunate souls?

Or is this instead a supremely important principle that we need desperately to keep trying to teach each other all the time?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! It is very good to pause and take stock of what we are thankful for -- not just on this day of the year, but every day.

There is much I am thankful for:
  • Family and friends.
  • Good health (my bout with strep throat helped me to appreciate how healthy I generally am, and that is a blessing).
  • Living in a truly wonderful community.
  • Working at a truly wonderful college.
  • Finding a job that enables me to express my sense of calling. (So many people are unhappy with their jobs--I am fortunate to have found my way not just to a job but a vocation.)
  • Even though there have been many things I have found difficult about life (it's a long story), I am enormously grateful for how much I have learned from the challenges I've faced, and I am grateful for the strength these challenges have built in me.
  • I am also grateful for an upbringing that prepared me very well to face the challenges I have had to face:
  • I am glad, for example, that my parents taught me to care about the problems of the world, even though that caring is often painful. I would rather face the pain of reality than live in the false contentment of denial.
  • I am glad that my parents encouraged open seeking.
  • I am glad that my parents insisted that we always have dinner together, and encouraged discussion at the dinner table. So often we tried to solve the world's problems. I am glad that they were always fully honest about their disagreements in these discussions--it prepared me well for the academic world. People initially think I'm a quiet, polite, and gentle soul, and then are amazed to see how well I can hold my own in fiery debates. My parents taught me the Socratic dialectic at its best.
  • I am glad that my household was an environment of creative, artistic, and intellectual pursuit.
  • I am grateful for trees, and the sky, and rivers, and the ocean. I am grateful for clouds, and the sun. I am grateful for the mountains, and also the valleys. And I like sharing this planet with other animals.
  • I am grateful for human ingenuity.
  • I am grateful to all who have persisted in expressing their creativity and vision despite setbacks, not letting temporary discouragement stop them. I am grateful to those who work through challenges in ways that make them strong, wise, and compassionate instead of bitter. I am grateful to those who are able to find humor in life's ironies.
  • I am grateful for the miracle of life, and for the strength and reality of love.

There is so much more I could say as well, but this is a nice start!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Various Updates

Hi. I'm back. Sorry it's been so quiet here lately. The fall semester gets intense in the middle. We go a long time without a substantial break until Thanksgiving -- so now I'm on break and have a chance to take a breath.

My classes have continued to go very well. My students in both classes have been just wonderful. They are tuned in and interested, and they are working with the material at a very high level. There is consistently a wonderful spirit in the classroom. This has been such a gift for me, and I am very grateful. I've always loved teaching, but this semester has been extraordinary.

But still, there have been other stresses. A colleague in my department has come up for tenure this year. I had to guide her case through. This kind of thing is hard on me, because I do not approve of this way that we intensely evaluate each other. Still, I could accept my role in this by conceptualizing it as being supportive of my colleague, and thankfully, things have gone well so far. The process is not finished, but the scariest stage is behind us, and so the prognosis is very good.

Almost a week after this important stage was behind us, I then suddenly got a bad case of strep throat. This took me very much by surprise. I don't get sick very often -- and if I do come down with something, I usually get over it in a day or two. This hung on until I finally went to the doctor and the doctor put me on antibiotics.

When I at last emerged from my fevered fog and could think again, I wondered, "now, why did I come down with that?" and the answer was clear: the strep throat coincided with the one-year anniversary of my own tenure case. To go through my own case, and then, one year later, to have to play such a responsible role on behalf of someone else's case -- all of this has been very hard on me. My colleague's case forced me to re-live my own experience. And so it is no wonder that after it is all over, I should just collapse for a bit. My body was forcing me into a profound rest that I would not otherwise have taken. The fever even turned my mind off of all the existential questions that re-living the process had raised for me.

I now feel a bit like a phoenix, emerging bedraggled but new from the ashes.

There is much I could say about both last year for me, and about what this year, my first year as a tenured professor, has been like so far. But for now I will just say that the phoenix image is a good one. And I am still bedraggled.

Yes, my story had a happy ending, and it looks like my colleague's case is turning out well too. But sometimes friends of mine have not made it through. And so I've experienced survivor's guilt. And the process is so invasively intense that even making it through "successfully" turns out to be rather traumatic. It's hard to describe. Those who are not in the academic world have been very happy for me, and admiring of the job security I now have. And I reply with graciousness, because they are right that that is a real privilege; and they are right that it takes a lot to make it through this harrowing experience. Yet, in the end, it is not, somehow, what it seems to be. What do I mean? I'm not even sure myself. I have a feeling that I will be processing this experience for a long time.

I've been thinking a lot about how much we judge each other in our culture. I cannot shake the thought that we judge each other way too much. It seems suspiciously tied to attempting to control each other too much. My concern with these questions is why I've recently been writing about justice and respect and what we owe each other. Rather than spending so much time trying to control each other's behavior, shouldn't we be putting our energies into living our own lives as well as we can? Shouldn't we be learning how to appreciate each other better, and learning how to work effectively together on addressing the significant problems that the world faces? Human energy is so precious--instead of expending that energy on evaluating each others' worthiness, why can't we take everyone's worthiness as a given and focus our attention instead on channeling that human energy to good purposes?

After Thanksgiving break, we have two more weeks of classes and then final exams. And then I will be on sabbatical! I am very happy about this. I have been really eager to move more deeply into my research. It will be nice to have the time at last to do that.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Living a Better World into Being

One of the most effective nonviolent strategies for transforming an unjust system into a just one is to perform actions that symbolize the better world you are trying to bring into being.

For example, one of the PBS video segments from "A Force More Powerful" shows students in Nashville organizing and participating in the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. What were they upset about? Not being able to sit at lunch counters. What was their nonviolent action? To sit at lunch counters. Of course, it is not as simple as it sounds. The strategy required careful planning and preparation to be effective. But the concept was simple: they lived the better world into being.

This is a very powerful concept. When you face injustice and want something to change, think carefully about how you would like it to be. And then ask: is there a way I (and/or my group) can live true to this vision of justice I have?

Too often when people are upset with something, they try to find people to blame and then set about trying to punish those "bad" people. And very often that strategy simply does not work -- because people don't like to be cast as bad or to be punished, and so they tend to retaliate.

So what if instead you simply pretend that the problem is already fixed, and the situation is already just, and live accordingly? This means living true to your own rights with graciousness and dignity, and expecting everyone else to respond with respect and dignity in return.

This is what the students did. Well dressed and carrying their school books, they quietly walked in, sat at lunch counters, and when they were refused service, they pulled out their books and worked on their homework. For a while, nothing more happened. Then, one day, the police pounced and arrested them. The police did not behave with dignity -- they moved in with unnecessary aggressiveness, betraying their own fear and anxiety. It was clear from the film footage that the students had no intention of fighting back. They walked calmly out to the police cars, if they could. If they couldn't (because they were being beat up) they simply took the blows without fighting back until the police were too embarrassed to continue. So the police looked ridiculous, and the students maintained the moral upper hand, and that was one of the main reasons for their success. When it came down to it, the mayor had to admit that there was no good reason to maintain the segregation.

The students had quietly and with dignity demonstrated the irrationality of segregation. By living with dignity themselves, they eventually drew out the reciprocal dignity of their former oppressors. Everyone benefitted, in the end, because in oppressive, unjust systems, it is not just the oppressed who are disadvantaged, but the oppressors too are diminished in such a system.

So, the students lived a better world into being.

We all need to keep asking ourselves: to what extent do we, in our daily lives, bow to injustice and let it continue on, either by accepting the indignity of being oppressed, or by accepting the indignity of playing oppressor roles?

What can we do instead to live a more just world into being?