- Upon What Authority Might We Teach Morality?
A couple of years ago, a student at the University of Virginia told me about an incident that occurred in an English course she had taken. Towards the end of the semester, in a large lecture course taught by a professor she described only as “highly p.c.,” a woman student stood up, interrupting the lecture, and shouted “I’m not going to take any more of this shit!” At which, according to my student, the class burst into applause. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this account, and I am happy not to know in what instructor’s course this incident is supposed to have taken place, but the story has stayed with me as one vision of the [End Page 155] “culture wars” said to be convulsing American colleges and universities. My student source for this anecdote made it clear that her fellow students in the course in question were objecting to what can variously be called the ideological or the political or simply the “p.c.” viewpoint of the faculty member, and that this viewpoint was the problem. It seemed to me, however, that the problem was elsewhere, in a shared failure of the faculty member, the students, and probably the university as a whole.
I thought of this anecdote in reading Professor Mearsheimer’s description of a university where the faculty promotes critical thinking, avoids teaching truth as such, and refrains from giving students guidance in “sorting out” ethical issues. In some ways the university he describes strikes me as a wonderful place, though very atypical of American higher education. But does Mearsheimer give an accurate view of the elite colleges and universities which are comparable to Chicago?
It looks to me as if the university, and particularly the faculty, is today more involved, collectively, in providing moral guidance to students than at any time in the last century. This involvement has led to much of the criticism of college teachers by the mass media and by students such as those in the English course I mentioned above. Frequently, however, the issues that occasion this criticism are not described as moral ones but rather as political. In the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, ethics and politics are inseparable, but today both faculty members and non-academic critics of the faculty seem to prefer the term “political”—whether it be in the positive context of creating “political awareness” or the negative one of carrying out “political indoctrination.” Yet even with the emphasis on “politics” much of faculty’s commitment to ethical guidance for students occupies the traditional focus of Anglo-American morality: the ethics of pleasure, or sex and “substances.”
Faculty members have been vocally engaged in promoting and administering rules of conduct for students and for faculty members in their contact with students. At the University of Virginia, the faculty debated and voted a policy on amorous relations between students and instructors (not merely sexual conduct), a policy that offered moral guidance to students as well as to the faculty. Faculty members have been active as a group in promoting speech codes at Stanford, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. At many universities (Brown being a recent and publicized example), faculty and students have been active [End Page 156] in enforcing the university’s rules of sexual contact between students. Faculty members, largely inspired and led by feminists, seem, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, to be reversing the movement of the early- and mid-twentieth century which had assigned “student life” to specialized administrators.
It is in the broader sense of morality, however, not only the practical and often local regulation of conduct but the formation of links between belief or value and a generalizable set of precepts—the domain so often today called “politics”—that the faculty’s activity is most pervasive. Here Mearsheimer’s vision of the University of Chicago seems most divergent from what I take to be the norm. The 1990s have witnessed a number of conferences on ethics in higher education, the most important of which, at least in terms of its institutional sponsors (sixteen scholarly or professional...