Morality and Education

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.

An Overview

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.

An Assessment

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.

The Autonomous Self and Higher Education

In the previous blog, I addressed the first major issue regarding American college education – a growing lack of mental discipline from students. Although most social commentators focus on the negative impacts of video media upon college students, I believe that the root cause of these issues stem from the fact that we have re-defined education. We have moved from a view of education as a means of discipleship to education as a means of job training. Thus, it can be said that we have undervalued the need to discipline and train the human mind. Coupled with this change in education, I want to address the second major issue: the promotion of the autonomous self.

The self is our interior world, made up of our own thoughts, private intuitions, desires, yearnings, capacities, particularities, and all other elements that makes us distinct from other persons. In essence, it is the sum package of ourselves that makes us unique from all other people. I believe that the promotion of the autonomous self has had a profoundly negative impact on higher education, and I believe the development of the autonomous self is the consequence of three noetic effects of the Fall: faulty perspectives, intellectual pride, and vain imaginations.

As mentioned previously, we are all subject to these issues in varying degrees because of the Fall. We all have various intellectual prejudices that cause us to misunderstand and misinterpret the world around us (as well as the people around us). These intellectual prejudices also cause us to misunderstand ourselves as well. This suggests that prejudice is somewhat axiomatic. However, there is a difference between recognizing our inherent prejudices ourselves and claiming that reality is defined and shaped by the observer. This is a perspective that is being promoted throughout our society, particularly in education. What cultural forces have contributed to this and what impacts do these have on the quality of college education?

The Emergence of the Self

In his book The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells address how the self-esteem movement has dramatically changed the fabric of American culture. In commenting about the 1960s, Wells notes

In a nutshell, what happened was that our individualism, which had always been a potent factor in American life, turned inward in this decade. It withdrew from the outside world and during the 1960s, a new worldview emerged. To a great majority of Americans, it now became clear that the self had become the source of all values. The pursuit of the self was what life was all about.

In other words, the old world individualism has morphed into a new type of individualism. The older individualism in which you should think for yourself, decide for yourself, provide for yourself, and work to serve others in personal and civic ways has turned inwards. Now, individualism is about “finding yourself”, discovering your inner potential for your own benefit, developing positive self-esteem, and developing new ethical rules that serve the discovery of the self.

In this new style of individualism, self-esteem is elevated even above actual performance. This is a trend that is tracked by numerous academics in which virtually all students view themselves as “above average” in all ways. In this regard, we are producing a generation of students who are “cured” of their inferiority complexes, but whose academic performance lag behind that of many other nations. In therapeutic terms, we have all become adept at being our own healers and our own counselors, dispensing wisdom and comfort to ourselves. In other words, we are not challenging ourselves; we are soothing ourselves.

In our version of individualism, we have the emergence of the autonomous self. Instead of esteeming objectively-defined virtues, we have prioritized good subjective values. Instead of developing objectively-defined inner character, we have prioritized self-marketing, image, and personality. We have replaced an understanding of human nature (which is based on a presupposition of a common shared identity) with the new concept of self. We have drifted from what we all have in common to what is unique to each individual.

The promotion of the self has been the message delivered to many of us for the past several decades. When a child grows up, he or she is taught to embrace their distinctiveness and uniqueness. We are taught to develop our own values and that each person needs to be respected for their values. Moreover, each person is entitled to express who he or she is and each person should define the meaning of his or her life. The prevailing theory is that a poor development of the self explains all sorts of bad behavior and also explains failing academic work. We can now examine some of the impacts that this philosophy has had on higher education.

The Impact on Higher Education

There are numerous consequences of the promotion of self upon college education. The first obvious consequence is a growing sense of entitlement and overconfidence. College faculty members tend to believe that this sense of entitlement is fostered into college students because of grade inflation throughout high school education, but there is plenty of evidence of grade inflation within colleges and universities. This means that the quality and respectability of an undergraduate degree is rapidly declining – to the extent that some degrees are not worth the paper that they are printed on. If the statistics in the above link are correct, this means that all college students are literally above average (with an average GPA of 3.1). Because of these trends, there is a genuine sense that if a student fails a course, then it is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

The promotion of self in higher education has also led to an increase in the hiring of student affairs professionals while freezing or delaying the hiring of full-time faculty members. Furthermore, to meet this ongoing need, more colleges and universities are beginning to develop graduate degrees for Student Affairs, and these programs are even being expanded to the undergraduate level. Therefore, we are witnessing an increase of programs aimed at training people to guide, aid, and facilitate the “personal identity” development of students. And what all of these theories have in common is the promotion of the autonomous self. For evidence of this, please see the following cheat sheet of student development theories.

The expansion of student affairs professionals in higher education also indicates a shift in the financial priorities for colleges and universities. It has been documented that the financial endowments of many academic institutions have flatlined or decreased over the past few decades. Thus, the funding for these new programs/departments have come from four likely sources: (1) students (through increases in student fees and/or tuition); (2) private donors and/or grants; (3) at the expense of academic affairs programs; or 4) through cutting the budgets of current student affairs departments to create new departments/programs. In my view, the creation and/or expansion of student affairs has led to the growth of adjunct, non-tenured faculty within most universities as a cost-cutting measure. This is one of the key indicators that colleges have begun to prioritize the development of the self over the development of the mind.

Our Response

From a Christian worldview, we should see this, not as just a fad in modern American culture, but a rejection of the Christian view of man. The truth is that Western societies want to think only in terms of the self, and they want to use this psychological world as an alternative to the older religious world. This myth of the autonomous self is so well-established, preserved in place by so great a public desire to keep it there, that it borders on heresy to question it. Nevertheless, we should question it and confront it.

The question that we should be asking is whether or not we have the ability or the right to autonomously define themselves. The answer is emphatically no! We do not have the right to dictate who we are because we are creatures, not the Creator. We are not self-created beings who choose to define our own reality; our identity has already been prescribed as creatures made in the image of God. Our lives are not a grand experiment in order to discover our unique identity; we are a part of God’s work of creation and providence, which means that our purpose and function has been determined by God. This is our Father’s world, and reality is set and defined by Him. Consider the commentary by David Wells

To speak of virtue, then, is to speak of the moral structure of the world God has made. Rebellious though we are, we have not broken down this structure, nor dislodged God from maintaining it. It stands there, over against us, whether we recognize it or not. We bump up against it in the course of life and we encounter its reflection in our moral makeup. And from all sides a message is conveyed to our consciousness: “Beware! This is a moral world that you inhabit!”

God’s work of creation does not consists only of the physical structure of the world, but it also includes the moral structure of the world. This also implies that we do not have the ability or the right to define the reality that we live in. Therefore, education should not be a means to liberate our minds from prejudices so that we can discover our true selves in our own inner world. Education should be a means to confront our intellectual prejudices so that we can understand the world that God Himself has made.

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Six, Of the Church

1. The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
( Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23; Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32 )

2. All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22 )

3. The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
( 1 Corinthians 5; Revelation 2; Revelation 3; Revelation 18:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 72:17; Psalm 102:28; Revelation 12:17 )

4. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, in whom, by the appointment of the Father, all power for the calling, institution, order or government of the church, is invested in a supreme and sovereign manner; neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.
( Colossians 1:18; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11, 12; 2 Thessalonians 2:2-9 )

5. In the execution of this power wherewith he is so intrusted, the Lord Jesus calleth out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father, that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribeth to them in his word. Those thus called, he commandeth to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world.
( John 10:16; John 12:32; Matthew 28:20; Matthew 18:15-20 )

6. The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel.
( Romans. 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 2:41, 42; Acts 5:13, 14; 2 Corinthians 9:13 )

7. To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.
( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )

8. A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.
( Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1 )

9. The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.
( Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6 )

10. The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him; it is incumbent on the churches to whom they minister, not only to give them all due respect, but also to communicate to them of all their good things according to their ability, so as they may have a comfortable supply, without being themselves entangled in secular affairs; and may also be capable of exercising hospitality towards others; and this is required by the law of nature, and by the express order of our Lord Jesus, who hath ordained that they that preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel.
( Acts 6:4; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17, 18; Galatians 6:6, 7; 2 Timothy 2:4; 1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Corinthians 9:6-14 )

11. Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches, to be instant in preaching the word, by way of office, yet the work of preaching the word is not so peculiarly confined to them but that others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.
( Acts 11:19-21; 1 Peter 4:10, 11 )

12. As all believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches, when and where they have opportunity so to do; so all that are admitted unto the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government thereof, according to the rule of Christ.
( 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14, 15 )

13. No church members, upon any offence taken by them, having performed their duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any church-order, or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church, or administration of any ordinances, upon the account of such offence at any of their fellow members, but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the church.
( Matthew 18:15-17; Ephesians 4:2, 3 )

14. As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ, in all places, and upon all occasions to further every one within the bounds of their places and callings, in the exercise of their gifts and graces, so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.
( Ephesians 6:18; Psalms 122:6; Romans 16:1, 2; 3 John 8-10 )

15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.
( Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 25; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 4:1 )