Ethics in the Classroom; College Curricula Accentuating Application in All Aspects of life.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)

Article excerpt


High-profile fraud scandals at Enron and WorldCom prompted the business world to relearn a basic lesson this past spring.

Ethics matter.

College students are also getting the message. When John Drexler, a business professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, decided to hold a one-credit class "The Enron Implosion," he expected some interest.

But not a 420-student stampede. The turnout forced Mr. Drexler to move the class to the school's largest lecture hall. Per-session attendance averaged 550 as listeners soaked up ways to analyze the wrongdoing and ways to act appropriately both on and off the job.

Buoyed, in part, by public interest in the scandals, more and more college programs are getting the message, too, and responding by integrating ethics into their lesson plans. Essays by concerned professors began appearing in the editorial pages of major newspapers.

While educators debate the best way to impart ethics to developing minds, one movement, called "ethics across the curriculum," is generating much of the discussion.

Ethics across the curriculum is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching ethics. It looks to encourage students to apply ethics in everyday situations and emphasizes that ethics come into play in all aspects of life.

Elaine Englehardt, a philosophy professor at Utah Valley State College in Orem, first started the movement more than 15 years ago. What sprouted as one professor's initiative has blossomed into a national phenomenon.

"It's a grass-roots movement that has caught the eye of [college and university] administrators," says Wade Robison, an engineering-ethics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and founder of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum.

The society, which started in the late '90s, has more than 500 members, according to Mrs. Englehardt. In the last four years, attendance at its conferences nearly quadrupled, and the most recent conference in Gainesville, Fla., drew people from as far away as Australia. Schools ranged from major universities to tiny liberal arts colleges.

Mr. Robison's interest in applied ethics germinated more than a decade ago when a friend asked him for advice. After listening to a lecture on ethical theory, the friend told him: "This isn't helpful. Why are you telling me about [Immanuel] Kant?" Kant was an 18th-century German philosopher.

Mr. Robison started looking for ways to apply ethics to practical situations.

"I found myself without any resources and with no place to turn," he says.

Eventually, he begged and cajoled his way into a class for RIT's senior engineering students. Armed with a basic understanding of the subject, he began teaching ethics to engineering students.

No university has yet completely adopted an ethics-across-the-curriculum approach, which Mr. Robison chalks up to institutional politics.

But professors such as Mr. Drexler are increasingly bringing ethics into the classroom anyway. Despite the popularity of his Enron class, Mr. Drexler says that integrating ethics instruction into the curriculum is preferable to what some call "ghettoizing" ethics in stand-alone courses.

By roping ethics off in one or two classes students are subtly encouraged to think that ethics are limited in application, says Dan Wueste, interim director of the Clemson University Ethics Center in Greenville, S.C.

To combat this, some schools are developing discipline-specific courses such as engineering ethics and business ethics. …