One of my initial responses to Academically Adrift (AA) was a form of despair. It is the feeling I’ve had at times in the classroom as 30 faces stare back at me (or at the ground, or at the cell phone they’re trying to hide under their desk) when I ask a question about the assigned reading, and it appears that at best a handful of students have even attempted to do that reading. It is tempting to become cynical, or bitter, or to simply throw up our hands in resignation. But if we desire to pursue excellence as philosophy teachers, we need to overcome these temptations. And one way to do that is to take on what seems like an even more monumental task than encouraging students to work—we may need to attempt to help our students become better human beings.
If Aristotle was right that one’s childhood is very important with respect to the task of embodying virtue as an adult, then some of the points raised in AA paint a bleak picture. Students who come to college primarily for a social experience and career credential may not see the value in grappling with difficult ideas and concepts, reading at least 40 pages a week and writing longer papers. Why undergo the sometimes painful and often difficult process of developing intellectual virtue when the point of college is to obtain a credential and have some fun? If all of the involved parties are supporting this approach, to varying extents, it will be that much more difficult to change the mind of the student to the extent that he or she engages in the necessary behavior for growth in intellectual virtue and critical thinking skills.
There are other issues in play here, as the authors of AA point out. Many PhD’s see themselves as independent professionals and are not concerned with advancing any particular institution, i.e. there is a lack of institutional loyalty which can be problematic. Related to this, according to Arum and Roksa a primary incentive driving faculty research “is a quasi-religious commitment to embracing research as a ‘vocational calling’" (Kindle location 289). The motive is not financial reward, at least for many and perhaps for most faculty. Clearly this is the case for philosophers, as our work very rarely populates any best-seller list. Perhaps we ought to take teaching to be a part of this calling as well. I won’t pursue this more here, given a previous discussion at ISW.
I’m interested in a repeated point in AA having to do with the institutional function of not only academic education, but (at least potentially and clearly historically) the function of moral education as well. There is a tradition in the U.S.A. in which colleges and universities have taken the moral education of students to be a central function and rationale for their own existence. Many institutions, historically speaking, were created for the achievement of moral ends via moral education. Moral education here is taken to include moral guidance, lest we think it is merely educating students about different moral theories or principles. Some worry that if the only moral values we support are diversity and tolerance, then we shouldn’t be surprised at the state of morality at institutions of higher education (Kindle location 368). As AA states, “in most secular colleges there has been little institutional responsibility taken for the moral development or social regulation of students. It is thus not particularly surprising that behaviors at odds with academic values, such as cheating on exams, have been demonstrated to have increased significantly in recent decades” (Kindle location 381).
A mark of colleges that change lives is that professors are not only mentors in class, but companions at dinner and on hiking trails, intramural teammates, and even friends. I’m not sure what to make of this as far as its possibility or even desirability for colleges and universities across the nation, but I do think that if we want to offer moral guidance to students it will have to happen in contexts beyond the classroom and office hours. Again, as Aristotle tells us, we grow in moral virtue in the school of life, not in the classroom. And I have a hunch that we need to offer such guidance, because of the ways in which moral and intellectual virtue are connected to one another and required for achieving the goals set out at the end of AA.
At the end of AA, the authors state that deep changes are needed if we are going to instill “in the next generation of young adults a lifelong love of learning, an ability to think critically and communicate effectively, and a willingness to embrace and assume adult responsibilities.” Again, I don't see how we can do this unless we take on the task of moral guidance.
I am interested in what people think about all of this. Do we need to focus more on a set of what might be called democratic values, beyond diversity and tolerance, to include such values and virtues as justice, equality, liberty, community, honesty, wisdom, and compassion? I think we do, though I’m unsure how this might work, apart from attending to them in the classroom, seeking to live them out ourselves, and forming deeper relationships with at least some of our students as described above. The last element would demand more of something that many of us have little to give, our time. But perhaps it is a price worth paying, at least for some of us.