In the previous blog, I addressed the second major issue regarding American college education – the promotion and fostering of the autonomous self. Although most social and academic commentators tend to believe that the entitlement mentality of the current generation of students is a relatively recent phenomenon, I believe that this is the fruit of a deeper problem that extends back multiple generations. Over the span of less than 60 years, the mission of college education has dramatically changed. We have abandoned the view that education is a virtuous endeavor (which seeks to train and disciple the mind) and have replaced it with a pragmatic view of education that primarily trains us for future jobs.
Moreover, the morality of education has also taken a rather dramatic shift and this shift has been consistent with the promotion of the autonomous self. Coupled with this moral change, I want to address the third major issue: the promotion of a morally neutral education. One important aspect of contemporary education which needs to be recovered is the belief that there is a transcendent, unchanging moral structure to our world.
Throughout Western history, one of the primary goals in the philosophy of education was the transmission of morality or virtue. Furthermore, many people believed that there is a deep connection between academic learning (i.e. the development of mental aptitude) and moral learning (i.e. development of virtue and character). In other words, early education theorists understood that the development of the intellect and the development of moral character are intimately related. Just as there is orderliness in nature (which has been summarized in the laws of natural science) and in reason (which has been summarized in the laws of logic), so too there is a moral structure to our world. For many theorists, this implied it is necessary to determine the objective moral order of our universe and to restore it to a central place in the educational process. For this reason, many early education theorists strongly believed that moral education belongs in schools. Furthermore, many took this to mean schools are partly responsible to educate children in morality.
Now, this final point has been the subject of intense controversy, especially over the last 50 – 60 years. Both Christian and secular education theorists acknowledge that teachers and professors represent an important adult authority figure in students’ lives and are therefore capable of making a huge impression upon students. Additionally, both Christian and secular education theorists recognize that teachers spend a large portion of the day with the students, often more than even the children’s parents do with their children. Therefore, the teacher has ample opportunity to educate children not only in important academic subjects, but in character and values as well. For some Christian educators, this has been an argument for the Christian homeschool movement. For many secular educators, this has been an argument for why educated societies become inherently more secular.
The Myth of Morally Neutral Education
Within recent decades, the belief in a morally neutral education has grown in popularity and I believe that it is linked to the emergence of the autonomous self. The logic is inescapable: if I can autonomously define my own reality, then surely I can define my own values and moral beliefs. Hence, subjectivity applies not only to my personal identity, but it also applies to morality. The essential argument of a morally-neutral education is as follows: we live in a pluralistic society and so we can no longer stress the values of some, while ignoring the values of all. Therefore, in order to avoid these problems and to promote fairness in our schools, we must all agree to ignore all moral values. For this reason, moral education is no longer explicitly taught in colleges and college students believe that they are only receiving academic training.
The claim of a morally-neutral education is a myth precisely because many college professors openly acknowledge that they intentionally choose to promote certain values and to reject other values. We have all read articles in which professors intentionally speak about the incompatibility of evolution and religious faith. We have all read commentary in which universities intentionally promote LGBTQ lifestyles. We have all read stories of hostile environments towards Christian faculty. The honest reality is that the specious argument for a morally-neutral education is an intentional and morally secular approach to education.
There are two important consequences to this approach to education. First, college students today are surrounded by an allegedly academic setting in which the things they find most obvious are confusing, conflicting claims and the absence of any fixed points of reference. In a nutshell, America’s colleges have become centers of intellectual disorder. Moreover, since a morally-neutral education is typically mandated within college education, this usually means that universities confirm the intellectual prejudices of those who control the agenda of public discourse – the tenured-faculty within the universities. In other words, a morally-neutral education does not actually foster independent thought – it becomes channels of indoctrination.
Second, college students today have not developed the rational faculties needed to make proper moral and ethical decisions. Since moral education is no longer seen as a vital component to a proper college education, students typically tend to ignore its value as well. For many students, the required philosophical ethics course at many universities is just simply a general requirement that they have to take. Another way to state this general observation is that modern students generally do not believe that there is an objective basis for making ethical decisions. For this reason, many students do not take the time to rationally think through moral and ethical decisions. Again, this is consistent with the subjectivism that is promoted in today’s world and this also explains the widespread documented claims of college student cheating. This cheating epidemic is so insidious that it has led to a black-market industry of custom-essay companies.
From a Christian worldview, the issues discussed above are simply the outworking of the noetic effects of sin, primarily intellectual prejudice, faulty perspective, and dogmatism. We should expect that these types of sins will only become more accentuated as our culture continues to embrace this modern post-Christian worldview.
As mentioned previously, important Christian thinkers have always contended that there are transcendent norms (like moral norms), that human happiness is dependent on living our lives in accordance with this transcendent order, and that human flourishing require respect for this order. The most important task of education is to continually remind students of the existence and importance of this transcendent order as well as of its content. This is primarily done by training the mind to properly interpret and understand this transcendent order. If educators are doing their job properly, they serve as an essential link in the chain of civilization because educators are the preservers and transmitters of culture. Without this link, the chain cannot hold and there is an inevitable devolution of culture.
With the morally-neutral approach to education, modern American education has severed the link between virtue, knowledge, and reason. One of the goals of education is to pursue and discover the objective natural order to our world. However, we must not forget that there is also an objective moral order to our world as well and we are all subject to it. Modern American education seems to believe that it is profitable (and possible) to train the mind of a student without training the heart of a person. From a Christian worldview, we recognize this as nonsensical. An adequate education dare not ignore either the mind or the heart. Like any important human activity, education has an inescapable moral component and any effort to produce a morally-neutral education is merely the substitution of one set of moral commitments for another.
It is at this point in which a Christian view of education is superior. When a culture’s moral commitments have no fixed points of reference or objective basis, this means that moral education will become subjective, arbitrary, and irrational (as we are seeing in American education). However, when a culture acknowledges the objective moral structure that God Himself has built in this world, this means that we can recover the view of education as the discipleship of the whole mind and the training of our full rational faculties.