Friday, February 22, 2008

Veritas Forum: Conclusion

What Your University Won’t Teach U, But U Are Apt to Catch Anyway: Shallow and Dangerous Morality

In the last Veritas lecture that I was able to attend, Dr. Willard was speaking largely on moral truth, and the impotency of the University when it comes to the topic. Though many people inside and outside of the university may not realize this, “it will not teach you good and evil, right and wrong.” The closest thing to a moral truth being taught by a university, Willard argued, takes the form of the rules against plagiarism and cheating, though these are viewed more as technical issues than moral ones. This is a precarious situation because, while these things aren’t being taught, moral life goes on; moral messages also are sent in the classroom outside of the curriculum itself, and we must this to careful, rational evaluation and critique.

So what does this problem look like? A speaker addressing incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago in the 1990s told them what they could expect to learn and what they shouldn’t expect in their college education—in the latter fell “truth” and “moral guidance”. The university giving a student truth would be nullifying their own critical faculties; the moral guidance that he spoke of was direct statements about right and wrong, good and bad. Though a number of professors and thinkers from across the country challenged his assertion, eventually he conquered the opposition. No truth, no moral guidance. Way may discuss morality, provide readings, examples from history, etc., but we do not teach it.

Most people, Willard contended, would say that these aren’t taught because no one really knows what right morality is to teach it. Not surprisingly, he went on to show the floundering of Ethics as course material in the university following the removal of theology from the course catalogue. “That left ethics and moral knowledge without foundation.”
The study of ethics moved from the sciences to the social sciences, finally to the humanities, but ultimately none of these could lay a foundation for thou shalt not steal, etc.
Now courses in ethics offer an overview of different moral systems devised over the millennia--Kant or Aristotle again come to mind. However, these are merely presented qua different systems by different men; still nothing is taught as moral Truth. While some may consider this to be enough, Willard emphasized that there's often a "disconnect between intellect and action", or, a "disparity between intellect and character." He illustrated this well with the account of a young woman who, in conjunction with a work scholarship, did cleaning in the campus dorms. While working there she was often treated despicably by classmates, and one student in particular, with whom she had taken Ethics courses (and who himself had performed very well in them), on several occasions propositioned the young lady for sex.
"This is a case of failure of intellect."

Willard felt that one of the other hinderances to our teaching moral Truth in the university was the emphasis on pluralism. But, he argued, the way to be pluralistic is not just to say that we don’t know anything or that everyone’s right. Instead, it comes from Christ’s teaching of loving our neighbor as ourselves. That’s pluralism. “Pluralism doesn’t mean that everyone is right in morality any more than it means everyone is right in French.”

The lecture ended with some thoughts one how to responsibly approach the topic of moral Truth. Here are some of the notes from Willard's powerpoint presentation:

Doing So Responsibly
-Would be to critically and thoroughly show the weight of evidence for the rightness and wrongness of kinds of actions, and for the goodness and badness of character traits and persons.

Responsible Intellect
-People of intellect and erudition today blindly reject the person and teachings of Jesus.
-They do not give serious consideration to Him but live in prejudice.
-Responsible intellect will test the truth about Him and the truth of His teachings.

"There are a whole range of things just written off, especially in morality."
Our alternative? We basically teach that pleasure and freedom are the ultimates in life.

Willard closed warning that
The moral teachings blindly conveyed by the practice of the contemporary university.
1. Imperil the lives of individuals, and
2. Undermine the moral foundations of institutions.

In the Q&A sessions following the lecture, Dr. Willard said two of my favorite things of the entire Forum.
In our culture we have tended to restrict knowledge to what you cannot disagree about--it lays a terrible burden on knowledge. . . I do think we have to find another standard of knowledge than agreeable.

I hope those who've been able to follow the Forum on here a bit have enjoyed Dr. Willard's 'guest-posting'. I'm very glad to have been able to attend as much of Veritas as I was, and I find myself left with many helpful reminders and a very solid appreciation for an author whose books I've not so much as cracked (yet).


Anonymous said...

He says we should show the weight of evidence for the rightness and wrongness of kinds of actions. What kind of evidence? How our society functions? Yes biblical morals would make a society function better but even if we all do the "responsible search for moral truth" no one is going to follow the new moral system. People are going to have multiple sexual partners even if colleges tell them it's better not to. What if I want to have multiple sexual partners and I don't care if that has a negative impact on our society? What if no one cares? Should they? No. We live in a secular society--we don't have obligations we just have to follow laws.

Universities should definitely search for historical truth and a resulting theological truth. But as far a simply searching for a moral truth first--seperate from a theological truth and biblical foundation...I don't think we can go farther than we already do because of different worldviews, beliefs, etc. Morality becomes relative at a certain point.

Nance said...

Oh I think you're absolutely right, Jordan. As Dr. Willard pointed out, the removal of theology from universities "left ethics and moral knowledge without foundation." (This gets at the heart of Lewis's 'argument from morality', though I read yesterday about a young atheist thinker, Richard Carrier, who thinks he's finally gotten us all around the issue in his book Sense and Goodness Without God... I'm hoping to look more into that eventually).
Now I'm not quite so pessimistic as you sound--I think that if ethics were presented as truths--divorced from theology--in the classroom that there would be an effect on the students. Not all of them, naturally, but on some. From those whose actions weren't influenced perhaps we'd see something almost as positive: conviction. The real difficulty here would just be, as you say, finding support for a curriculum in such a course.
With or without the Biblical foundation beneath this as a curriculum, the amount of work needed to see it come to pass is daunting.