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  • The Benefits of an Amoral Education: “Intellectual Capital . . . New ways of Doing Business . . . Getting Up in the Morning”
  • Patrick Henry (bio)

In “The Disappearing Moral Curriculum,” Dennis O’Brien claims that modern universities moved from indoctrination to choice as our view of education progressed from one of “recovery” to that of “discovery.” Whether one feels liberated by this development or rather laments “the ethos of discovery, fallibilism, and everlasting inquiry,” it [End Page 170] seems reasonable that such a change would increase rather than decrease the time spent discussing moral issues in the classroom. 1

Let me make it clear that by “discussing moral issues in the classroom,” I do not mean moralizing, preaching, teaching any specific moral code, or advocacy on any sort whatsoever. I am opposed to the assumption of the ethical high ground over our students whose claims to moral authenticity are no less compelling (or no more) than our own. What I mean is requiring open discussion of the moral dimension of the texts we study together, forcing students to do critical moral thinking and to come to terms with the concept of moral excellence and with what might constitute the attainment of the good.

Scientific discoveries necessarily leave ethics in a perpetual state of catching up. We were capable, for example, thanks to the computer, of spontaneous dissemination of all kinds of information, before we had ample time to determine just what information should be disseminated and to whom. The ethics of cyberspace is only one new area in a world of constant discoveries and rapid change that mandates ethical thinking by all of us. Certainly part of our job is to prepare our students morally for the world of global marketing, genetic engineering, and weapons of mass destruction. To remain mum on these issues is to fail in our own ethical responsibility as teachers.

More generally, when we return to Mearsheimer’s three aims of education—Critical Thinking, Broadening Intellectual Horizons, and Promoting Self-Awareness—we notice that a fourth essential aim, Knowledge of Others, is missing. Students will take courses in a “wide variety of disciplines” but, whatever the course, the ethical dimension will form no part of the discussion. Professors will “seek to get [students] thinking seriously about a wide range of enduring questions regarding the workings of human society,” but we are never told the nature of these questions.

Nowhere is the individual self portrayed as coexisting with other beings, defined as other selves with an equal claim to happiness. There is much good advice here regarding self-awareness but little if anything on the promotion of “awareness of others.” While students are told that “this will be [their] last great opportunity to build a broad base of intellectual capital” and that they will be “exposed to new ways of doing business,” the questions of interaction with other human beings and the attainment of happiness are never broached. Nowhere is the whole drama of the individual within the community even mentioned, much less played out. Because “collectively we are silent on the issue of [End Page 171] morality,” students never get to ask and debate questions of fundamental importance to their growth as human beings and to the health of the communities in which they live: How do individuals attain happiness? What role do others play in the happiness of the self? What obligations does the individual have regarding the happiness of others? These questions and numerous others regarding justice, individual responsibility, and right and wrong arise naturally in literature classes (regardless of what is currently in the canon) and should form an integral part of courses, not only in philosophy and religion, but in history, the social sciences, business, law, medicine, and environmental studies. To deny students the opportunity to exercise their moral judgment, which in my experience is something they are hungry to do, is to rob them of the ethical training needed to become active moral agents in a world of unprecedented change.

The poverty of “amoral education” becomes most emphatically clear when, ironically enough, Mearsheimer extols its supposed benefits. Here we taste the bitter fruits of an education characterized by a “complete separation between intellectual and moral...

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pp. 170-174
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