From the President

Character Education

James Wagner, President, Emory University

Those looking for a good read might do no better than to pick up the latest book by David Brooks, The Road to Character. Known as a conservative-leaning pundit who writes regularly for the New York Times op-ed pages, he keeps politics pretty much out of this book and instead demonstrates a remarkable range of reading across the disciplines of history, theology, psychology, philosophy, and literature. The point of his argument is simple: we develop character through internal struggle against our besetting personal weaknesses. Brooks tests and elaborates that argument through illustrative biographies of exemplary historical figures. 

These are not saints (okay—one of them, Saint Augustine, actually is), but they are mortals who had to work to overcome an array of obstacles and harmful susceptibilities. In the process, they forged what Brooks calls character: “a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.” In this view, “character” is not measurable by external achievements. Rather, character is the result of wrestling with deeply personal moral questions that lead one to a vocation in the noblest sense of that word—a calling that matches one’s gifts and talents with the world’s needs.

The book advances an ancient and well-pedigreed understanding of how moral judgment is formed. But two quotations in the book bring the thesis home for anyone involved in education. The first is by Mary Woolley, one of the first female graduates of Brown University and a president of Mount Holyoke in the early twentieth century. She wrote, “Character is the main object for education.” The second quotation is from the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.”

What I find provocative about Brooks’s book is its implications about the role of educational institutions. Emory has a long history of thinking about education in moral terms. Most recently, our vision statement holds out the prospect of Emory as an “ethically engaged” community.

There is a danger inherent in this kind of language. It suggests to some listeners a kind of piety or self-importance that risks being called out for hypocrisy or cynicism when the institution falters.

Many educators therefore prefer not to push too far in the direction of the moral dimensions of education. Or, rather, they want to insist that whatever moral functions education has are limited to the honor code: “I will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate others who do.” This is the position of the well-known pundit and scholar Stanley Fish, who has written extensively about higher education from his decades of experience as a literary scholar, teacher, and dean.

In his 2008 book Save the World on Your Own Time, Fish insists that academic professionals have only one job, and that is to introduce a new generation to a body of knowledge and to the intellectual tools for analyzing and managing that knowledge. Political and moral views—whether of the left or the right or somewhere off the scale—have no place in the classroom, except as ideas to be analyzed structurally, studied historically, measured sociologically, and so on; ideas are not held up in the classroom for recruitment of new disciples. Nor, for that matter, should any university have “a position” on a host of policy issues. Fish approvingly quotes a provost who, when asked about his university’s position on a particular matter of world affairs, said that the university “has no foreign policy.”

Among the descriptions of college that Fish finds repugnant is the phrase “transformative experience”—believing that the only transformation worthy of a college is the one that occurs when a student comes to understand an algorithm, a lab procedure, an era of intellectual history, a closely argued reading of a poem.

Fish’s position has a lot to recommend it, and as an argument for what professors ought to be doing, I agree with it. But he misses a lot of what a residential liberal arts university like Emory is about. Inside the classroom his rules should apply. But a campus of nearly fifteen thousand students and more than twenty-eight thousand faculty and staff members is a complex community that needs to order itself to be able to function.

At Emory we have spent a lot of thought and energy and time over the past decade in thinking about how to order our community of scholars. Through our Class and Labor Committee, our Advisory Committee on Community and Diversity, our Respect Program, our Emory Healthcare Pledge, and other measures, we attempt to hold up that “habitual vision of greatness” that Whitehead suggests is the foundation of moral education. We are not indoctrinating students into a particular set of moral values. But I hope that we are encouraging them to explore the possibility of developing a character worthy of Emory’s vision.

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