How to reinvent higher education.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 15 2005 8:17 AM

College Makeover

When ideas kill.

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here  to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here  to read more from Slate's "College Week."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

If consensus has disappeared over what, if anything, should be taught to all students who attend college, it has been lost most dramatically where morality is concerned. Colleges once required a senior capstone course, often taught by the college president, focusing on morality, usually from a Christian perspective. These days colleges are afraid of teaching any perspective at all for fear that someone will be excluded.

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I would make morality central to any plan to revitalize general education. Students would be exposed to the great ethical thinkers who pondered the meaning of life and death, defined the difference between right and wrong, and tried to figure out what was good and what was evil. By its very nature, such a course would include religious figures, Christian ones along with others; Jesus, St. Paul, and Augustine come immediately to mind. But it would also include moral philosophers with hard-to-define religious views (Kant, Hume), as well as the resolutely secular (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins).

It is easy to say that such a course could avoid the problem of taking sides by not taking them. But I wonder whether such resolute nonjudgmentalism would best serve the needs of contemporary students. Although I teach at a Catholic university, I find students reluctant to proclaim any one thing better than any other thing, including their own faith. Catholicism cannot, they believe, be the one true faith, which is another way of saying that any faith, even no faith, can be true. Their pluralism is admirable. Their inability to choose is lamentable.

Religion and morality are either serious subjects or they are not. If they are not, by all means let college reinforce the conviction of its students that there are no real convictions. But if they are serious subjects, part of teaching them involves preaching them. Let the best case be made for why Christianity offers a superior morality to Islam (or, for that matter, the other way around). And then let the students argue against whatever case is being made.

If religion should be taught with its sharp edges intact, so should the Enlightenment. My students are the products, if long removed, of a revolution in thought that took place in the 18th century; had it not occurred, they would not be in college. They need to know why it was so important for modern science to break through the orthodoxies imposed by faith, one reason why they also need to know what those orthodoxies were in the first place.

We live at a time when ideas kill. Even in the United States, where killing over ideas is less likely to happen compared to the places we send our troops, people devote their lives, sacrifice potential income, and even break the law on behalf of conceptions of the world they hold to be true. For my students, by contrast, ideas are things found in books meant to be transcribed into blue books. My students are intelligent enough to know which ideas are important and which are not. But they lack the passion to choose between which ones are worth fighting for and which ones are not.

The "liberal" in liberal education is generally understood to mean openness of mind: a suspicion toward dogma and a willingness to allow truth to emerge from the clash of different viewpoints. Liberalism, however, also means the cultivation of dispassion, the capacity to evaluate ideas from behind what the American philosopher John Rawls called a "veil of ignorance." The most just social arrangements, Rawls famously insisted, are the ones we would choose if we were forbidden to know whether or not we would benefit from them. In a similar way, students must learn that an idea is not necessarily true because it just feels true or accords with a moral sensibility that, however strongly held, is not well grounded in reason. 

In today's attack-and-defend style of politics, the very possibility of dispassion is denied; a typical cable television program features someone from the left and someone from the right, as if ideas were nothing more than the ideological categories imposed on them. Along similar lines, we are frequently told that each person's religious convictions are sacrosanct and that someone outside one tradition has no right telling another inside one what to believe. My aim for liberal education is to make students passionate about dispassion. I want them both to have strongly held views and to be able to stand outside their own views and judge them as if they were wrong or self-serving. Making morality central to the reform of general education is a way of recognizing that human minds have come up with radically different answers to the great questions of moral obligation, but that human practices have also found ways for people with different answers to live together short of war and chaos—at least most of the time.

Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?

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