Posted by Professor Melina Bell

I write in response to Morgan Harris’s previous post, which I view as raising an important call to address the respect problem at the root, by taking a hard look at the way the W&L community is structured and the way members interact on a daily basis with one another. Does anyone have ideas about how to improve structure and interaction? Please share! (I also wish to disagree with Mr. Harris and claim that college students can be taught morality; I give my reasons below.)

The stratification of students at W&L based on sex, race, geographical region, social class, etc. is, I entirely agree, a huge root of the respect failures we are experiencing. I am sympathetic to Mr. Harris’s call for restructuring housing and dining. However, it occurs to me that these structures are largely responses to students’ own self-segregation. Do students have to join and spend all their time with groups who are as much like themselves as possible? Is there a requirement that one join a fraternity or sorority (for example)? Moreover, there have been many events sponsored by W&L non-Greek organizations that are very poorly attended, students tell me because they do not serve alcohol. So maybe a priority check is in order here: is it more important to drink alcohol at all or most social events, or is it more important to mingle with diverse groups of people? Are there efforts people could make to mingle within the existing system, if it were really important to them? Would you sit next to someone you don’t know in class, or dine with someone not in your “normal group” at the Marketplace?

Now for what appears to be (although it may not be, in the end) a disagreement with Mr. Harris. Echoing a sentiment from an earlier editorial piece, Mr. Harris states that “you can’t teach college students morality.” I find it important to reply to this because I keep hearing this phrase repeated, and what gets repeated frequently enough tends to become accepted, unjustifiably, simply from the repetition and familiarity. I not only have good reason to believe this is false, but there’s a sense in which my life’s work is worthless if it is true.

Morality can mean different things, and I’m not sure what Mr. Harris means by it. He could mean that the rules of our society’s moral code cannot be taught to college students. (If “Don’t do that or else” is an example, this is what he probably means.) But rules for behavior can easily be taught to much younger students and, since many other rules can be taught to college students, why not these?

Mr. Harris might be using “morality” in its normative sense: the principles that govern how we should treat others (and, on some accounts, ourselves), transgression of which makes us blameworthy or reduces the integrity of our character to some degree. If he means this, then he is absolutely right that “Don’t do that or else!” is a tremendously ineffective way to teach morality to college students. However, that does not mean morality cannot be, or should not be, taught to college students. I would go so far as to say that universities and professors are obligated by the missions they generally promulgate to teach their students morality, either directly or indirectly by helping students develop the sorts of reasoning and intellectual skills that conduce to good moral deliberation.

As a philosophy teacher this is near and dear to my heart, since of the three traditional branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics), ethics (or “morality”) is the branch I work on and teach. The role of an ethics teacher, in my view, is not to lecture students about what is right and wrong, but to teach them how to reason effectively about what is right and wrong, how to distinguish right from wrong according to a set of principles, and so forth. Presumably, every college student comes to this university with a set of moral principles that she endorses. Usually these principles have not been subjected to much reflection, examination for consistency, or exercise in matching principles endorsed with applications that yield an outcome acceptable to the student. Teaching morality, for me, is not teaching students to share my moral principles (or that of the university or anyone at it), but helping students to develop their capacity to evaluate, adapt, justify, and apply the moral principles they already endorse. If this is impossible, I am wasting a substantial portion of my life. So are many other professors at this university who devote a great deal of time and energy to fostering student growth not just intellectually, but morally.

Recent events make me apprehensive that Mr. Harris’s and others’ skepticism about the prospects of teaching morality to college students is not wholly unjustified. I cannot think of a set of moral principles arrived at after careful reflection that would justify some of the goings-on of late. Maybe that means we are failing as teachers. Maybe it means some students have decided not to apply what they learn in their classes to their own lives, or to use this learning to become more noble and humane people; they simply want to use it to get a grade or a job that makes a lot of money.

Mr. Harris has drawn attention to a valuable insight: Teaching is not a one-way process: learning is a voluntary activity. If students are not receptive to what is being taught, no learning occurs. If commands are given without reasons (“Don’t do that or else!”) then no teaching occurs. But, in my view, a lot of teaching has been taking place, and a lot of learning too. And it is not always the professors who are teaching and the students who are learning, but it happens the other way too. Students can participate in their own learning by participating in classes as well as discussions outside class, and in the same way they can teach their professors and other students as well. This is what makes a culture that discourages student participation in classes or intellectual discussion among students particularly damaging. It eliminates opportunities to learn from one another.

So, students, here is an opportunity to teach: What steps could be taken to promote the sort of inclusive community at W&L that Mr. Harris calls for?


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