Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ethics and Education: Dreaming of a better way

Why are there not more higher education conferences that bring together instructors across disciplines to discuss the ethics of education? How do we overcome our cynicism to make this possible?

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Roger and I attended the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference, held this year at Haverford College. The theme was "Exploring Right Relationships."

From the moment of the plenary address Friday morning, on justice, given by Sarah Willie-LeBreton, I knew I had arrived at the right place. How do we bring as many people as possible to the table?

The Haverford campus is exceptionally beautiful: but why not a place
 like this for every student in the United States? 

The Haverford campus is especially beautiful, breathtakingly so. But part of me wonders: all this privilege for 1,200 students? I am glad those who attend the college can do so--I know some of these students--but I echo a question that ran through the conference: how do we promote the best sort of education, one that like Haverford's addresses the whole person? Instead of constant budget cuts and degrading facilities, lack of staff and resources, why not envision a United States dotted every few miles with such beautiful campuses as Haverford's serving K-12, not to mention college students? In the age of the one-room schoolhouse, the modern high school with multiple classrooms, a library, science labs, art rooms, stages, gyms and showers must have seemed as much a dream, if not more so. And yet at one time, we managed that leap forward. We are so much richer a country now: if we wanted to do, we could leap forward again. Yet all I hear are the voices shouting this down. 

Conversations at the conference offered hope. Every session I attended was excellent, but three stand out. Philosophy professor Laura J. Rediehs led a workshop based on an essay she wrote that the won a 2012 Carnegie foundation award answering the question: What is the  biggest problem facing the world today?

She wrote that our problems stem from using economics rather than ethics as the primary basis for decision making. She invited all of us into a discussion about how to bring ethics back into first place, especially in education, where getting a good job currently seems to be the only rationale for going to college.  

Her essay can be found here: https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/articles_papers_reports/0139. The other essays that won along with hers were also good, I thought. I am planning now to use these essays in a course I will teach later in the summer. 

Julie Meadows, who shared a session with me, spoke of people advancing in academe by tearing other people down. Why is the academic world so cynical? Why can't we build on the foundation of each other's work, she asked? Having done my share of tearing down, I am thinking about what she had to say: certainly we need to hold each other to rigorous standards, but can we find more creative and supportive ways to do so?

Jeffrey Dudiak talked about getting beyond modernist perceptions of Quakerism that permeate both liberal and orthodox Friends to arrive at a wisdom that bridges our divides. 

I found the conference's meetings for worship Spirit-led and Spirit-suffused. Being in such a love-saturated environment helped me to recognize what a routinely cynical world I inhabit--so routine that it seems "normal" to constantly puncture everything. But it is deranged to live this way, so quick to knock down everything, a symptom, I think, of our profound fear of hope--and  I am part of the problem. My hope--and I will have hope, foolish as it sounds, is that some of spirit of possibility, of realistic sincerity, of a way forward that dreams of abundance for everyone, can be infused into this weary world. 

Yet I want to raise the question: how do we get beyond the cynicism that permeates our discourse? 

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