Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ethics and education

Also in this week's free TLS sampler, Martha Nussbaum discusses the shortcomings of Harry Lewis's critique of education at Harvard:

So lacking in curiosity is Lewis about what his colleagues in the Humanities have been doing that he fails (at least in this book) to grasp a very fundamental distinction that goes across the Humanistic disciplines: between the intellectual aspect of character-building and the many other ways (personal advice, personal influence) in which young people can find their characters shaped by what they encounter in a university. He repeatedly suggests that the main way in which universities build character is through the latter set of techniques – mentoring, advice-giving, personal example. In consequence he makes the alarming proposal that candidates for academic posts should be evaluated for their moral character: not just that part of character that is relevant to the performance of one’s job, where severe substance abuse or a penchant for sexual harassment might possibly be legitimate issues to raise in the hiring process, but their private lives as well, their treatment of their children, and so forth. I think that Lewis simply doesn’t believe that the intellectual endeavour of the Humanities makes any contribution to building character. Because he has not spent any time with the Humanities, he cannot picture what that contribution might be. But one may learn to take apart and deeply appreciate a line of Latin verse from someone whose behaviour to his or her children is simply not known or, even, is known to be bad. One may learn how to think about the arguments of Plato and Aristotle from someone whom one might not like to have as a friend. Learning these modes of analysis, however, does make its own contribution to citizenship, for the reason identified by Socrates: most people, having never learned to examine their beliefs, are actually somewhat half-hearted and crude in their commitment to them. If you simply don’t know how to distinguish a utilitarian from a Kantian argument, there are issues that you may easily miss – as a doctor, as a juror. You might think, for example, that respecting a patient’s choice and promoting the patient’s interest are the same thing, and you might just assume that your own judgement about the patient’s interests is the only thing that needs considering – as many doctors are all too inclined, paternalistically, to do.

That's good, isn't it? I find these questions fascinating. I don't think you could have a whole faculty composed of people you wouldn't want to be friends with, but the distinction's an important one.

Oh, and she offers a paragraph of commentary later on in the piece about reasons to tenure from within, a topic of great interest in university circles:

And yet Harvard does have one large problem, peculiar to itself, which Lewis fails to mention, rather like the elephant in the room. This is that Harvard, with its requirement that all candidates for tenure survive an international search and an ad hoc committee including outside experts, tenures far fewer people from within than its peer institutions, with the possible exception of Yale. The University of Chicago tenures about 50 to 60 per cent in the arts and sciences; at Harvard, the figure would at one time have been closer to 5 per cent, although there has recently been improvement in some departments. Instead, Harvard typically lets its young faculty go, and brings people in at a much later career stage. So far as I can see, this additional selectivity doesn’t fully pay off in quality. Institutions with higher tenure rates, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, do extremely well in departmental quality. Even more clearly, however, Harvard’s policy deprives Harvard of young scholars just at the time when they may be most creative as teachers and programme-builders. Therefore many young people will find that they get a better liberal education at the many fine liberal arts colleges, which are a little more generous than Harvard, and even than other elite universities, in granting tenure to younger faculty.


  1. Interesting stuff...I think about this ALL THE TIME as it relates to writers and artists (without reaching any conclusions). Should we, or shouldn't we, care about their character?

  2. I do care, but I also think that it skews depending on what kind of art form we're talking about: generally speaking (there are of course exceptions), more of the writer's character goes into creating the appeal of a novel than of a poem or a painting. Or perhaps I just have a subtler understanding of novels than of poetry and painting; I am quite prepared to grant this.

    But I will stand up for the importance of character beyond, I think, the place that Nussbaum's interested in going with the review: just not in a straightforward "we hire based on character" way. (The people who are hired in too-large a proportion are the suck-ups and self-promoters who disproportionately endear themselves to the writers of letters of recommendation! Very difficult to see these qualities from above--we recognize them more readily in our peers or our elders than in those considerably younger than us--but surely some of the worst traits teachers can have--they are qualities that affect intellectual style, at least in the humanities, as opposed to a vice like cruelty which may or may not affect teaching style but seems to me less likely to affect one's intellect. This is the kind of thing I would like to write a book about! Or at least an essay. I will contemplate it.... it is actually the sort of thing that the novel form is also very good for working out....)

  3. I can speak for this in the sciences, certainly, where the schmoozing of political types trumps all else and really negates any good qualities they might have, since the damage that they do to the collaborative environment is so great. (It also, unsurprisingly, drives away people who just want to do good work.)

    Fortunately, the existence of somewhat more empirical screening methods manages to remove a good chunk of these types at the individual contributor level. The combination of political venality and competence is comparatively rare. Unfortunately, it's still horrendously poisonous.

    Management on the other my experience, management positions are pathologically vulnerable to these types in all disciplines.

  4. In my inagination universities are just crawling with the types you're describing! I think you're right that the novel is a good place to talk about this stuff...but I look forward to your essay!

  5. I really admire this, I mean it really looks interesting! I'm actually glad to see all this stuff, to see that this world offers creativity and ideas other than what my lonesome small town provides. This world is quite the big place and to encounter a story such as this one just puts me out of my ordinary. I gotta hand it to whoever wrote this, you've really kept me updated! Now, let's just hope that I can come across another blog just as interesting :)