Peer Review, Summer 2002

Vol. 4, 
No. 4
Peer Review

Of Character and Citizenship

American higher education has retreated in its vision of what it owes students. Classic liberal education presumed that students were to be trained for civic leadership. With the advent of the research university model, with the increasing careerism of matriculants, with the loss of confidence (rightly, to my mind) that there could be a unitary moral orthodoxy, higher education concentrated increasingly on the inculcation of specific knowledge and skills. Character, like religion and ethics, became the private concern of the student, not something to be addressed in the classroom, and even citizenship education became suspect as a euphemism for jingoistic nationalism.

The postmodern challenge is whether the academy is now willing to bear responsibility again for educating students to respond to the moral and political dilemmas of our time. In the wake of September 11th, how can the answer not be "Yes"? But if the answer is yes, how can the academy speak authoritatively and constructively to issues of citizenship, service, leadership, and character without imposing a particular model of morality, religious or secular? In the wake of the events of September 11th, how does the academy acknowledge international pluralism without engaging in impotent relativism?

I believe teaching our students to negotiate issues of ethics and citizenship must be part and parcel of a liberal education. In part, it is a matter of doing what the academy has always done: entertaining diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and modeling how a community can engage in civil dialogue. The ideal of the academy is to be able to represent fairly the viewpoint of those with whom one most disagrees. But dialogue, however necessary, is not sufficient. The unending conversation is what we must, at all costs, preserve in the academy. But our students need to be equipped for living, in most cases, beyond the academy, in a world where moral decisions, in all their contingency and uncertainty, must be made. And in living, and in choosing, character counts. It is the rudder that determines whether knowledge, skills, vocational expertise, and networks of influence will be used for good or ill. How one earns a living should be an extension of the values that illumine one's life, and there should be continuity between personal values and societal engagement.

The university must seek to enunciate an ideal of service rooted in values that may be shared across cultural, religious, and political boundaries. Of late, there has been renewed interest in Stoicism, a pre-Christian ethic that affirms such values as the solidarity of humankind, the efficacy of reason, the need for self-sacrifice; personal virtues such as integrity, diligence, and self-control; and social virtues such as justice, tolerance, and benevolence. Such virtues and their resulting behaviors are not grounded in a particular dogma, but they are markers of goodness to which people of various faiths, or no faith, can subscribe. And yet, in our pursuit for what binds us as a common humanity, we can't forget that we cannot be human in general: We express our humanity in particular, culturally-mediated ways. Language is a quintessential human capacity, but no one speaks "language"; one speaks English, or Chinese, or Swahili. The university must both affirm the claims of universal humanity and uphold a commitment to cultural diversity. It must affirm equal opportunity and value individuals according to their achievement, but it must also strive to give place and voice to different races and cultures, acknowledging that the very definitions of "success" and "happiness" are culturally mediated.

There is a necessary intellectual dimension to values; their study has a long and venerable history. But the study of values alone is insufficient to inspire. Wrote a young man on the eve of his execution by the Nazis, "I want you all to remember-that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream of you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for." Let us bring Nobel laureates to campus. Let us bring great artists and scientists and thinkers and peacemakers who have contributed to the bounty of human achievement to inspire students and give them examples to emulate. Let us create programs and systems whereby our students discuss ethics, do public service, and consider how they might use their education to be servant-leaders in the world. But let us also remember that our students are watching us, and the lessons we dare to teach, and the visions we dare to espouse, obligate us to try and live them as well.

As president of Butler University, I pledge my institution to the pursuit of academic excellence, but not simply for its own sake. I pledge that a Butler education will engender in students not only habits of mind but also, in de Tocqueville's famous phrase, habits of the heart which will enable them not only to make a living but also to make lives that are personally fulfilling precisely because they are implicated in the well-being of others. Our final gift to our students, our children, must be to teach them to hope. On the occasion when the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was presented the Nobel Prize for Peace, he said, "I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.... I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.... I still believe that we shall overcome."

As a people, we have been freshly scarred by the terrorism of fanatics. We have seen people betrayed by unscrupulous leaders in whom they put their trust. We find ourselves buffeted about by wars and rumors of wars, by fear of our neighbors and fear of what the future may bring. We wonder about the worth of educating our children for a world that could be darker than the one in which we have walked. In this time, I say let the university be a city on the hill that equips our students in knowledge, in skill, in character, and in hope to work to make a brighter future, to make a world more just, more tolerant, more compassionate, more inclusive than the world in which they were born.

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