Saturday, December 03, 2016

Feel good school

My spring course "Exploring Religious Ethics" has very few students signed up for it. That might be because it's focusing on Confucianism this time, but the trend of the last few iterations (on hipper traditions Buddhism and Christianity) suggests "religious ethics" itself fails to draw student interest. On Thursday I asked the students in "Theorizing Religion" if "ethics" was an off-putting word in a Lang context, and several agreed - especially when compounded with "religious!" People don't like to be pushed on their values, one said. It's just assumed that everyone agrees, said another, and that just by being here one is a good person. A quick scan of our course catalog shows very few courses in the ethics area across the whole university.

This is curious. Our institutional "Mission" is full of value words.

The New School prepares students to understand, contribute to, and succeed in a rapidly changing society, thus making the world a better and more just place. We will ensure that our students develop both the skills a sound education provides and the competencies essential for success and leadership in the emerging creative economy. We will also lead in generating practical and theoretical knowledge that enables people to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.

That's a little vague, actually, rather like our claim to be "progressive," and our commitment to "social justice." I'm committed to all those things, but they seem to me, well, a little undertheorized. To put it another way, "better"  and "more just" and "improved" are not self-explanatory: each presupposes a theory of the good. People have very different ideas of what is good, as of what justice is and demands. Even where people share a vision of the good, there are differences of emphasis and priority, difficult decisions and complicated interrelations of individual, interpersonal and political scales. And negotiating differences among views of the good is as hard as it is important at each of those scales. Any ethics class will tell you that - or would, if we offered them.

Most other universities have something like "ethical reasoning" as one of their general education goals for all students. Not us, but then we have rethought the whole idea of general education goals, which we prefer to call "Shared Capacities." (I was part of the earliest discussions around this; it's come a long way since I left the conversation in 2014.) The working list is interesting:

Capacities of excellent undergraduate

education across the country

Critical Analysis 

Multi-modal Communication 

Quantitative Reasoning 

Research Literacy 

Scientific Method 

Additional capacities provided by a 

New School undergraduate education


Creative Making 

Cross-Disciplinary Thinking

Flexibility and Resiliency 

Working in Complex Systems

Interesting, but there's nothing like ethics here, even as the process claims to be "guided" by the work on "Essential Learning Outcomes" of the Association of American Colleges & Universities' LEAP project. That list of outcomes includes four kinds of thing:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World 
Intellectual and Practical Skills
Personal and Social Responsibility
Integrative and Applied Learning 

The third, described as including civic knowledge and engagement - local and global, intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and foundations and skills for lifelong learning, is absent from our list. (When I was part of the discussions, "social justice" was on our list. Some thought that since it pervades all our work - making the world a better place!! - it didn't need to be articulated as a separate capacity. I wasn't convinced either of those things was true - or that "social justice" adequately covered LEAP's ideas of "personal responsibility." In any case it was culled by the Provost.)

I don't want to be drawn back into the Shared Capacities discussions (I was actually offered the opportunity to lead the committee, and declined as politely as I could) but I wonder how we became so ethically smug. It has something to do with the sense that we are different from other schools and aways have been. We rest on the laurels of the heroic University in Exile, and fanciful ideas that we have always been not just "progressive" but "leftist," "pacifist," even "radical." The very word "new" seems to assure good karma. Even if we had been those things (we haven't), that wouldn't settle the ethics question for students today.

Actually, the university Mission and Vision is introduced by a reference and commitment to the "core values" of our venerable past:


These are not lefty, radical or even particular progressive values, of course. They're liberal values. I don't have a problem with that, and think that New School tradition is better understood as liberal, too. (Liberal values will need all the defence they can get in the next years.) But there's something missing here, too, and not just as a characterization of the values of the school. (Where's democracy, for instance?) Freedom, tolerance and experimentation are for and by individuals doing their own thing in splendid unchecked isolation. There's no sense of the importance (and the hard reflective work) of Personal and Social Responsibility, no ethics to explore.

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