The quest to re-moralise the modern university

Even in the age of greed is good, the fundamental job of universities is to produce “capable and cultivated human beings”.
Steven Schwartz | Aug 5 2011 | comment  



What, exactly, is the university for? Universities once had clear ethical purposes but over the years we have lost our moral direction. To fulfil their true purpose, universities need to get back on course: we need to re-moralise.

To show you how much, I will take you back to when I was a five-year old living with my family in New York City. Thousand of people around the world died of polio that year; more than half were children.

This drama was repeated every summer.  Everyone was relieved when autumn brought an end to the polio season, but the cycle of fear would begin again the following year.

Then something amazing happened. Jonas Salk, a young, and previously obscure, university researcher, created a vaccine. The initial results looked promising but a large-scale research project was required to be certain that the vaccine was safe and effective.  A call went out for children to participate in a nationwide double-blind trial and my parents did not hesitate to enrol me. All together, two million primary school children, known as “Polio Pioneers” rolled up their sleeves for what became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”.

The trial proved a success; the vaccine was safe and effective and Jonas Salk became justifiably famous. Although Salk became famous he did not become rich. This is because he and the University of Pittsburgh, the private university where he worked, licensed the vaccine to anyone who wanted to manufacture it. The ethical premise driving Salk’s work was simple: the purpose of university research was the discovery and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of society.  Making money was never their goal.

Would parents be as eager to sign up their children to this kind of experiment today? I am sad to say the answer is probably no.  Many of today’s parents refuse to allow their children to have tried-and-true vaccines let alone experimental ones. Today’s parents are deeply sceptical about science and scientists. They particularly distrust the commercial motives of drug companies, researchers and universities. They have a point.

Drug companies, for instance, have their in-house staff produce research articles extolling their product’s benefits. Company representatives then approach well-known medical researchers and ask them to put their names on the articles as the author. The result is that articles, actually written by company employees, wind up in prestigious medical journals under the names of famous scientists.

Publications are the coin of the realm in university scientific careers.  Some scientists agree to pose as authors just so they can add another paper to their CVs.

Clearly, we live in another time and place from Salk. The central ethical premise of universities has changed fundamentally. The discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by the desire to exploit it.

Can anyone today imagine a university giving a valuable vaccine away? In fact, the government encourages universities to do just the opposite — to patent our discoveries and capitalise on our intellectual property.

There is nothing illegal in universities trying to exploit the commercial value of their intellectual property. However, commercial transactions carry their own imperatives, and these may not be compatible with traditional academic values. Scientists are not the only ones whose ethics require scrutiny.

In the Global Financial Crisis, financiers whose fast and loose behaviour caused financial distress and misery to families around the world included some of the brightest graduates from the world’s leading universities. The British parliamentary expenses scandal was perpetrated by graduates of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious universities. Instead of taking a stand, universities have kept quiet.

This is because they no longer have a moral role. They have given it up for one that is strictly utilitarian. The Federal Government says the purpose of universities is “to grow the knowledge-based economy”. They are  “key contributor[s] to… economic progress”. Invest more in higher education, it says, and the result will be more wealth for everyone.

As a Vice-Chancellor, I would really love to believe this, but I am sorry to say that it is grossly exaggerated. There is no automatic correlation between the amount of money spent on universities and economic growth.

I am not suggesting that universities do not contribute to the economy. Of course they do. So does Shakespeare. Tourists to Stratford-upon-Avon spend millions of pounds per year on hotel rooms, meals, not to mention coffee mugs with quotes from Hamlet. And then there are the jobs created printing Shakespeare’s plays, selling copies of his sonnets and acting in Shakespeare productions. There is only one problem. Shakespeare’s value has nothing to do with any of these things.

Not everything of value can be expressed in dollars and cents. Education is, or should be, a moral enterprise.

I know that many, indeed most, students go to university because it will help them to get a better job. There is nothing wrong with this; a fulfilling occupation is part of a good life. But even jobs are not just about money; work also has moral value. As John Ruskin said: “The highest reward for man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it”.

From its earliest classical origins, education has not just been about acquiring work skills — its real purpose was to build “character” so graduates could take up their role in their society and contribute to the good of everyone.  The original universities took it for granted that their main job was to mould the character of their students, usually by inculcating religious precepts.4The idea that the purpose of education was to forge character persisted for almost 700 years.

As recently as the 19th century practically all universities still understood that this was their mission. Unlike the first American and British universities, which were either private or independent charitable trusts, the first Australian universities were public institutions established by acts of parliament and supported by annual appropriations from the government. They were deliberately not religious.

Interestingly, Australian universities never actually renounced their goal of developing character. Following Socrates, they hoped that knowledge of the good would automatically lead to a commitment to the good.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, even this non-religious approach became suspect. The Vietnam war and civil rights movements fomented campus unrest in the USA, which spread to Europe and eventually to Australia.

The result was that not just students but also their professors increasingly perceived truth seeking as futile. Universities slowly sank into the morass of moral relativity.

This rendered them unable to make judgements; they could not even decide which subjects students should study. Today, students are allowed to choose from hundreds of options with no subjects considered more important than others. The result is that our universities teach students, but they do not even pretend to make them wise.

In his inaugural address as rector of St Andrews University in 1867, John Stuart Mill said the object of universities was “not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings”. Mill was right.

We at Macquarie University have decided to see whether it is possible for a secular institution to teach more than job skills but to actually educate the whole person. Although we can no longer go back to teaching religion-based prescriptive ethics, we do want our students to live up to John Stuart Mill’s vision of graduates of cultivated people.

We at Macquarie believe that a university education ought to produce educated men and women who understand the world and their place in it, who can write and speak coherently, who know what a poem is and who can tell a symphony from a jingle. For this reason, our new undergraduate curriculum does make judgements.

All of our students, no matter what course they are enrolled in, are required to study People subjects (exposing them to the arts and humanities) and Planet subjects (so that they can understand how science works).

But being cultivated is not enough. We also want to go back to education’s purpose and build character. How are we doing this? This is where the third “P” for Participation comes in. All Macquarie students, whatever course they pursue, will undertake a community or work project outside the university, in many cases outside Australia.

Most important of all, their experience will help them to develop a concern for others, and a concern for others is the essential foundation of all ethics. Our new curriculum is expressly aimed not just at the state of the art - but at the state of our students’ hearts.

This is an edited version of an address by Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, on June 6.



Copyright © Steven Schwartz . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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