MOVEABLE TYPE The Moral Purpose of Higher Education

Book review; Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University

Dr. Nannerl O. Keohane, president of Wellesley College MA from 1981-1993 and Duke University NC from 1993-2004, is a leader among women in higher education. Her book Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University is a collection of essays and speeches on the mission of higher education.

She graduated from Wellesley in 1961, studied at Oxford University UK and got her PhD in political science at Yale University CT. She has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College PA and Stanford University CA.

 Political theory and leadership experience come together in Higher Ground, an expression of her deep personal convictions on critical issues facing higher education today.

Distinctive goals

“I regard colleges and universities as intergenerational partnerships in learning and discovery, with compelling moral purposes that include not only teaching and research but also service to society,” she writes.

Higher education is a response to deep human needs. It nurtures a passion as deep as any other. Women and girls in Afghanistan rushed to take advantage of educational opportunities long denied them. Students and teachers in Iraq keep coming to bombed-out classrooms.

Responsibilities of research universities are not only to discover and share knowledge but also “to see that such knowledge is used to improve the human condition.” Scholars have moral obligations to predecessors and successors in their field, their students and one another.

Perhaps taking education too much for granted, Americans who treat it as a business forget its moral aims. Colleges and universities have long interacted with corporations, benefiting both. The danger today is pressure on schools to act like businesses, losing their distinctive character.

In the 1956 science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens displace the citizens of a small town with pods who look just like them. Keohane notes Henry Steck’s suggestion that corporatization of universities is similar: They lose their soul while appearing unchanged.

Administrators treat faculty as employees. Faculty see themselves as entrepreneurs. Public references to excellence or opportunity reflect the latest market research. She doesn’t think the pods have taken over, but leaders walk a fine line between corporate partnerships and corporate domination. Whether publicly or privately funded, schools retain a social contract to serve a public purpose.

Moral education

Founders of colleges 150 years ago made no bones about their aim to develop character as well as intellect. Today educators speak of building leaders and preparing students for productive citizenship.

Especially for traditional-age undergraduates, the college years are critical for moral development. As much occurs outside the classroom as in it, one reason technology hasn’t made campuses obsolete.

Yet many professors shy away from raising moral issues in the classroom. Some fear violating scholarly objectivity or appearing to promote personal beliefs.

How can schools help students develop into independent thinkers who are also good citizens and leaders? Four civic virtues offer a basis for interacting with others regardless of beliefs:

  • Understanding of human interdependence
  • Appreciation of the need to control some personal impulses for the public good
  • Some degree of tolerance for difference
  • Willingness and ability to collaborate with others

Faculty in most fields can encourage these virtues as they draw attention to issues of good and evil. They can help students learn how to think clearly about ethical questions without promoting one right answer.

Value of diversity

Character training commonly starts within families and communities with common beliefs and values. Cultural diversity makes citizenship education harder—and all the more important.

Higher education in the United States used to be limited to white Protestant males from the middle and upper class. Separate colleges were established in the 1800s for women, Jews, Catholics and African Americans.

Later these groups gained access to the same colleges that white Protestant males attended. Technical and community colleges were founded to meet other societal needs.

Broadening access is part of higher education’s public responsibility, but the trend is reversing as tuition increases outpace wages or salaries. Instead of combating social inequality, expensive higher education reinforces it.

 Programs to broaden access for women and minorities have come under attack. Educators haven’t adequately explained why diversity matters, she writes. Its importance goes beyond access.

Preparation for citizenship, leadership and employment must include the ability to interact productively with people from many different backgrounds. Few settings offer such a promising place to learn these skills as a college campus with a diverse student body. She challenges academic leaders not just to explain this to the outside world but to consider its implications on campus. Students tend to self-segregate into homogeneous subcultures. Clubs, courses and centers may increase this tendency.

“Nobody learns much by spending all their time in the company of people who share all their habits, perspectives, and beliefs. Instead, we learn from difference,” she writes. “Our diversity should become a point of healthful tension rather than hostile suspicion or simplistic celebration.”

Academic freedom

Among the most contentious issues on campus is the scope of academic freedom. While political and religious leaders try to stifle criticism, some on campus claim academic freedom as an excuse to insult and belittle others.

Educators must vigorously defend academic freedom. As poet John Milton wrote centuries ago, the best defense against error is not suppression but truth, in the form of more speech. More subtle censorship occurs when students or scholars fear expressing any opinion strongly. Intellectual discussion suffers when everyone backs off.

Civility is the key to vigorous interchange among people of differing views. It means letting others speak and listening to them respectfully. It means responding to arguments without belittling or dehumanizing the people who express them.

Civility does not mean making sure everyone is always comfortable. “Strongly held views are indeed sometimes offensive to those who do not share them,” she writes.

Faculty should encourage students to express strong views with passion and civility, discouraging cheap shots. As they gain experience with respectful conflict of opinion, students learn critical thinking as well as the moral virtues that make good citizens and leaders.

Are we there yet?

In November 2004 she spoke at the 30th anniversary celebration of Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, founded during her time on the Stanford faculty. Are we there yet? Defining “there” as “a world in which gender contributes to human personhood and creativity without overly constraining individuals in stereotypical roles,” the short answer is no.

Research about women and gender has increased enormously but is still considered outside the mainstream of most academic fields.

Women’s progress in the public sphere depends on progress in the private sphere. Without good household help, flexible work arrangements and childcare, career and family still conflict. A small but growing number of young women are choosing family or career instead of trying to combine them.

Some women in high positions make a strategic decision not to rock the boat by pressing gender issues. She did this at Duke, waiting until she was well established there to launch a women’s initiative.

One result of the Duke initiative was the study that found women students suffocated by an ideal of “effortless perfection.” Strong gender-specific cultural norms stifle the self-exploration that’s a critical part of student development. “I believe that the progress of women towards full personhood, respect and a wider range of opportunities in our lives is not only the best measure of human progress, but the most powerful engine of that progress too,” she writes.

We’re not there yet but we’re on the road. Nannerl Keohane has been a powerful model and influence in moving women forward on the journey.

Book information

Nannerl O. Keohane, Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University (Duke University Press, 2006), list price $24.95.

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