LOOKING FOR THE TRUTH in Utah

By Cheney, Jean | Humanities, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

LOOKING FOR THE TRUTH in Utah


Cheney, Jean, Humanities


"WHAT WAS BEAUTIFUL ABOUT METZSCHU IS THAT HE SHOOK THE FOUNDATIONS FOR ME. I believe in God, I'm religious, but I love those moments when I have to struggle. They build me the most. At times, when we were discussing free will versus determinism in class, it was hard to go because of where I knew the discussion would take me. But I did, I made myself."

Samuel Grenny, Utah Valley University

Twenty-five years ago, "Ethics and Values," a new and rigorous humanities course at Utah Technical College required for all students, began to raise the academic bar. Eventually, the school became Utah Valley State College and was on its way to becoming a university. And the course? It has enrolled 100,000 students and garnered national recognition, including the prestigious Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for its leadership in promoting ethical thinking.

When you stand outside the Liberal Arts Building on the sprawling urban campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, about forty miles south of Salt Lake City, you quickly notice how new everything looks - new buildings, new walkways, new trees, and lots of young faces streaming by. It's hard to imagine this was once a small technical college that had, according to one philosophy professor, a serious problem. "I saw that students came to the Technical College to get their 'general education' credits cheaply and easily," says Professor Elaine Englehardt. "They took the path of least resistance - the easiest teacher teaching the easiest course at the most convenient time."

Englehardt set out to develop a humanities course that she believed would matter to students, one focusing on ethics and values. In her graduate philosophy classes at the University of Utah, she had seen the study of moral philosophy "open minds that had been closed." She wanted a formal study of ethics as the foundation, but she also wanted texts from religion, history, and literature. Students would be steeped in the ideas of great moral thinkers and then consider complex topics such as abortion, war, corporate responsibility, and homosexuality from the point of view of historians, novelists, and religious writers.

With advice from faculty and administrators, and feedback from early, unsuccessful grant applications to NEH, Englehardt refined the course, settling on key readings from the Bible, Aristotle, Kant, Hobbes, Mill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and others, and contemporary philosophers Peter Singer and Carol Gilligan. When students turned to topical areas such as abortion, for example, they would read a variety of texts, including Justice Blackmun's decision in Roe v. Wade, Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "The Mother," and Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants." Equipped with these multiple views, students then discussed, debated - and decided - the issue for themselves.

Questioning may seem like second nature to most eighteen-year-olds, but this is Utah County, which is more than 80 percent Mormon and strikes many observers as seriously orthodox. A native of the state and a member of the Mormon faith, Englehardt recognized that Utah County teenagers usually grow up hearing one point of view. "They can be shocked when they leave home and go out into the world," she said. "If they're for something, they need to know why. If they're opposed to something, they need to know why. Our students didn't. They had never questioned or thought about why they believed what they did. They had never studied Christ's Sermon on the Mount, for example. Did their ethics really derive from its teachings? Were they willing to turn the other cheek when attacked? They said, 'No/ but they didn't know why."

After initial grumblings of "Why do we have to take this?," students in the Ethics and Values course became fans. In evaluations, they cited it as a "life-changing experience," and "one of the most important courses I've taken." Sariah Guiterrez, a recent graduate, is passionate: "Philosophy is vital. …

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