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Ethics Through Teaching

Harvard Can Use Classes to Prevent Student Malfeasance

By Todd F. Braunstein

In his much-acclaimed book Beyond the Ivory Tower, former Harvard president Derek C. Bok outlined the reasons why an institution of higher learning should instruct its youth in ethics.

"There is value to be gained from any from of instruction that...forces [students] to think carefully and rigorously about enduring human problems," Bok wrote. "It does seem plausible to suppose that such classes will help students become more alert in perceiving ethical issues, more aware of the reasons underlying moral principles and more equipped to reason carefully in applying these principles to concrete cases."

Harvard's current answer to achieving that goal is the Moral Reasoning requirement in the Core curriculum. Moral Reasoning, according to the 1995-96 Courses of Instruction, is designed to "discuss significant and recurrent questions of choice and value that arise in the human experience."

Like most of the Core, Moral Reasoning classes are uniform in structure: two or three lectures each week and a weekly section with a teaching fellow. As a result, Moral Reasoning classes tend to have the same effect as most Core classes; they're oversubscribed, watered-down and not especially meaningful to students.

In light of the numerous ethical misdeeds committed by students over the past two years, I believe that it is time to reconsider whether the Moral Reasoning requirement is effectively meeting its goals.

Undeniably, Harvard has seen a disturbing rash of unethical--even criminal--behavior from its students over the past several years. Most seriously, two students confessed in court to stealing more than $125,000 while running An Evening With Champions, the Eliot House ice skating show that raises money for a children's cancer charity.

Meanwhile, the scandals engulfing Harvard's Undergraduate Council are so frequent that the student government has become something of a laughingstock. This reputation stands before both the students it purports to represent and the administrators with whom it purports to engage in meaningful negotiations.

The president and business manager of the Harvard-Radcliffe Yearbook were forced to resign this year because of "spending abuses," according to a Crimson report. And the general manager of the Krokodiloes, an a capella singing group, was forced to resign after allegedly using $3,000 of the group's funds for personal expenses.

These were deliberate actions that might have been prevented, had the students thought about the implications of what they were doing. If they had been encouraged to set high standards for themselves in running their organizations, perhaps they would have thought twice. On a more basic level, if they had been taught explicitly to think about what they were doing and why it was wrong, they might have reconsidered.

Others of a more cynical stripe would argue that the folks involved in these improprieties were bad apples, and that there was little Harvard could have done to save them. Perhaps that is true, but that kind of attitude isn't consistent with the idealism that liberal arts colleges have always represented in this country.

In his book, Bok presents a more optimistic approach. Perhaps students are inclined to act morally, but do not because "they are simply unaware of the ethical problems that lie hidden in the situations they confront." Others, Bok adds, find themselves too "enmeshed" in ethical problems to make their way out cleanly. Finally, Bok points out that college-aged students are still establishing the standards they will hold themselves to in their future professional and personal lives. In other words, it would be wrong of a college to in any way abandon its duty to attempt to teach its students how to reason ethically.

I would go a step further. I believe that a college should do anything and everything in its power to ensure that its students have had an adequate instruction in moral reasoning. As part of the large, watered-down Core, the Moral Reasoning requirement cannot accomplish that goal in its current form. Administrators may disagree on the effectiveness of the Core, but moral reasoning is simply too important to leave so much room for dissent.

What the College's curriculum needs is a dramatic revision of the Moral Reasoning requirement. Instead of the fluffy courses typical of the rest of the Core, the faculty should institute a series of small seminars in which students actively identify and discuss the ethical problems they face.

The current incarnation of moral reasoning is simply not enough; even former president Bok wrote that ethicstraining instructors "are typically less concerned with presenting solutions than with engaging the class in an active discussion to encourage students to perceive ethical issues, identify the competing arguments, evaluate these contending views and ultimately arrive at thoughtfully reasoned conclusions." Indeed, small seminars would allow students an opportunity for the intensive, active consideration of ethical standards that is most likely to have a real impact.

For years, the College has required such small seminars for only one purpose: the teaching of expository writing. Knowing how to write effectively is certainly essential for success in nearly all professions, especially academia. But knowing how to detect ethical problems and how to reason through moral dilemmas is equally, if not more important to students' success in achieving both their own goals and those of society. (And this is particularly true at a College that prides itself on the graduates it's placed in influential positions in the public and private sectors.)

I am certainly not advocating the elimination of the Expository Writing requirement. But if the teaching of writing is important enough that the University requires all undergraduates to enroll in small, intensive seminars, isn't moral reasoning important enough to the University to receive similar treatment?

Geyser University Professor Henry Rosovsky, who was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences when the Core was designed, devoted a chapter to the goals of liberal education in his book, The University: An Owner's Manual.

"It may well be," wrote Rosovsky, "that the most significant quality in educated persons is the informed judgment that enables them to make discriminating moral choices."

Rosovsky, who is also one of seven members of Harvard's more powerful governing board, was right. When the Faculty reviews the Core next year, it would do well to consider whether recent College scandals are a signal that it has been negligent in its responsibility to provide students with adequate instruction in this "most significant" area.

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