Is teaching virtues a vice?

Professor of Psychology Peter Glick

A colleague recently emailed me a Stanley Fish article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Aim Low,” May 16, 2003). Fish, a prominent postmodernist, now Dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that the currently fashionable goal of teaching students democratic values (e.g., civic commitment, pluralism, etc.) inevitably conflicts with “‘intellectual integrity, concern for truth, and academic freedom.'” The problem, Fish writes, is that teaching virtues devolves into “a mish mash of self-help platitudes, vulgar multiculturalism…and a soft-core version of 60s radicalism complete with the injunction (although not in song) to ‘love one another right now.'” Of course, professors’ values undoubtedly influence what and how they teach. But Fish points out the need to draw a line between teaching virtues versus examining value-relevant topics with the (however imperfectly realized) aim of getting at the truth (which even Stanley Fish now seems to think is out there).

Although Fish’s main concern is the academy’s intellectual integrity, teaching (other than academic) virtues can have another debilitating effect – the infringement of students’ academic freedom. When students fear to make arguments that disagree with their professors’ political convictions, academic freedom has been lost. In such cases, students are taught to silence themselves or to express views that will gain the professor’s approbation, rather than to form reasoned arguments. Whether professors are up front or mysterious about their politics, they have a responsibility to judge students on the quality of their reasoning, rather than the political implications of students’ views.

The virtues students take from Lawrence must develop without heavy-handed “lessons” delivered by professors. We would be rightly outraged if my wife, Professor Carr, aimed to inculcate Christian virtues or, conversely, to prove the falsity of Christian belief in her classes. Participating in the academic analysis of religion may lead some students to doubt and others to redouble their faith, but to promote either outcome would violate Lawrence’s academic mission.

Similarly, a student in my class on prejudice must be free to argue against affirmative action or a student in Economics to oppose NAFTA secure in the knowledge that they will be judged on the quality of their arguments, not whether they agree with their professor’s political values. For professors, teaching students to think for themselves entails being proud, even if a bit disconcerted, when it results in a more sophisticated opponent of one’s own convictions. Whether it comes from the political left or right, students ought not to be hammered over the head with anyone’s book of virtues.

Peter Glick

Professor of Psychology