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Moral Education in an Immoral Society

Moral Education in an Immoral SocietyPeople are talking about ethics these days, as well they should be. Our nation’s business pages bear a close resemblance to the police blotter, and investor confidence is at an all-time low. It seems partisan to say that Republicans have taken the concept of greed to a new level, but from where I sit the moral climate in the White House has much to do with where we are. When the vice president of the United States runs his energy policy past those who would benefit from it, who is paying attention to the people who have to pay energy bills?
Sure, the Senate pushed through some corporate governance reforms. But on a scale of 1 to 10, those reforms are, at best, a 6. They haven’t fully dealt with the issue of charging off stock options (if a perk reduces the bottom line, doesn’t common sense suggest it ought to be accounted for?) And there is far too much jawboning and far too little action associated with new law.
Meanwhile, Congress wants to address the issue of individual bankruptcy in a law that is being pushed by the very credit card companies that have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the last election cycle. And while companies like Enron and WorldCom shrug off their responsibilities without many consequences (except to their employees and pensioners), Congress is considering making the individual who is forced to go bankrupt pay.
The hypocrisy and venality that riddle our public policy seem both overwhelming and unstoppable. Tackling the issue of ethics is like hopping up a 45-degree angle hill — nearly impossible. There are many who have the rhetoric perfected, but their actions cannot meet any form of scrutiny. But there are some who raise the right questions, some who may even have a few of the right answers. Harvard’s Peter J. Gomes, in his book, The Good Life: Truths that Last In Times of Need has raised a series of questions about the ways we should live and also offers a few answers.
Of course, I’ve a bias to confess. I’m an unabashed Peter Gomes fan. I became enamored of his brain after reading The Good Book: Reading the Bible with the Mind and Heart, his 1996 examination of the ways that people misuse the Bible. One of the reasons I liked The Good Book was because it was a useful way to think about America’s original sin — that of institutionalized racism. How could people really talk about kindness, love, and charity, while enslaving others or treating them unequally?
In The Good Life, Gomes speaks of moral education, something that is woefully lacking in higher education. He is measured when he speaks about the way it used to be, the way that moral components of education were more universally embraced. Much of a fan as I am of Gomes, I regret that he relied on the “good, old days” to make a series of points about moral education, because the good, old days were only good for some folks.
When he lifts up President John Adams as an example of moral excellence, I chafe that Adams was willing to broker the fate of slaves to “save the union.” He was able to bask in his morality all the while embracing inequality. But that’s America.
Gomes deals with some of the contradictions of our nation’s immorality in his book, but from where I sit, he doesn’t do so sufficiently. Of course, it is his book, not mine, and he is making a broader set of points than those I would make about the immorality of racism. Still, I could not read the book without wondering how Gomes or anyone else would expect morality in a nation of thieves. How could we expect our political leaders to be honest when we stole from the Indians, enslaved the Africans, interred the Japanese, disenfranchised the Chinese, conscripted labor from the Mexicans and so on and so on and so on.
Still, to read with a jaundiced eye is to miss some of Gomes’ point, and to avoid some of his rich wisdom, especially his wisdom about ways people come clean about their immorality. He describes a moment at Harvard when Rev. Billy Graham comes to speak on “Peace in a Nuclear Age.” Some students were understandably hostile, especially in the face of the fact that Graham has made much of the close relationships he has had with every American president. Writes Gomes, “One student asked him why he had not used his influence with Johnson and Nixon to end the Vietnam War sooner: Where was the ‘truth to power’ when we needed it.” According to Gomes, Graham confessed to not being a better friend to Johnson and Nixon who needed to hear the gospel from him. Says Gomes, “He also confessed to the sin of procrastination in the early days of the struggle for civil rights.” Graham may have been candid in revealing his sins against society, but how many clergy have done the same. Indeed, how many have embraced the notion that slavery is something that should be apologized for and that reparations are an appropriate remedy to consider.
From where I sit, the lack of confidence in our nation’s corporations, and the corporate chicanery that we have recently experienced are both a function of the immorality that has always been an inherent part of our society, the implicit immorality and exploitation that comes from a capitalist form of economic organization. Much as Gomes speaks to the good life and the virtues we should develop, he fails to deal with the context in which we develop these virtues. Moral education in an immoral society? 

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