Whither Moral Education?

By Taggart, Andrew | The World and I, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Whither Moral Education?


Taggart, Andrew, The World and I


Even the most cursory glance at the first-person columns published regularly at The Chronicle of Higher Education--those sentimental epistolary novels about the ups and downs and ins and outs of academics working in higher education--will make plain how very little erudition teaches one about the art of living.

To be sure, there is something eerily reminiscent of Facebook about this genre of writing: the tedious recording of the minutiae of everyday life, the minor pangs of frustration of those on the job market, the smallish victories of those already on the tenure track, and, above all, the niggling adjustments made in order to satisfy the whims of overly demanding students and brooding colleagues. Most, it seems, allow their lives to be governed by endless vacillations between hope and fear, measured optimism and probable disappointment. Meanwhile, the less fortunate few remain mired in once quiet despair now given voice through pseudonymous confession.

What, then, explains the disparity between scholars' expertise in a particular area of research and their naivete regarding how to live? It is reported of the Presocratic philosopher Thales that a servant girl calmly said to him, "How can you expect to know about all the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just beneath your feet?"

The trope of the self-absorbed thinker so engrossed in the subject matter before him--be it quarks or quasars--that he has no clue how things fare in the world was as common to the Greeks as it is to us. Theory is one thing, this line of thought seems to go, practice quite another. This is more or less the criticism Aristotle levels against the Platonists who erroneously argued that having metaphysical insight into the nature of things was necessary and sufficient for being both a virtuous person and a good legislator. In the opening pages of the "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle minces no words, stating that the chief aim of normative ethics is to teach us how to be virtuous and not simply to tell us what virtue is. After all, having theoretical knowledge of swimming alone will hardly improve your breast stroke.

Nevertheless, even assuming for the moment that theory and practice are cut at the joints in much the way that these jokes about beclouded metaphysicians seem to imply, such an explanation remains less than satisfactory since it does little to stifle our curiosity concerning why education should cultivate these sorts of persons and this sort of behavior in the first place. Why, in other words, does it seem perfectly natural for us to ask and to keep asking how it could be that so many academics, schooled at our finest institutions, could be no wiser than anyone else about the business of living?

Could the fact that educators have no wisdom to impart to us have something to do with the nature of American education itself and, by extension, society at large, or are we forced to conclude instead that human nature is simply inscrutable, fate merely inexorable?

On the gulf between learning and wisdom

The topic of moral education was one of Michel de Montaigne's hobby horses when he first sat down to write Book I of the "Essays" around 1580. Of the distinction between learning and wisdom, he insists that "Learned we may be with another man's learning," but "we can only be wise with wisdom of our own" (Montaigne, 1993, 155). He goes on to poke fun at his fellow Frenchmen who, he thinks, place too high a value on learning for its own sake:

"When someone passes by, try exclaiming, 'Oh, what a learned man!' Then, when another does, 'Oh, what a good man!' Our people will not fail to turn their gaze respectfully towards the first. There ought to be a third man crying, 'Oh, what blockheads!'" (ibid. 153)

That third man, of course, is Montaigne.

In such essays as "Du Pedantisme" (translated less stingingly as "On Schoolmasters' Learning") and "On Educating Children," what Montaigne finds fault with in medieval education is the rote learning that noblemen continued to be schooled in. …

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