Do You Believe We Should Do More To Encourage The Development Of Character On The Part Of Students? How Would Our World As A Whole Benefit? One’s actions r
One’s actions reflect one’s character, and they also form one’s character. Consequently, the morality of one’s actions also reflects and forms one’s character. Good moral actions come from a good character and form a good character. Bad moral actions come from and form a bad character.
Read The Disparity Between Intellect and Character by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Do you believe we should do more to encourage the development of character on the part of students? How would our world as a whole benefit? (Occupations, Media, Social Media, Relationships, Religious Institutions, Family, etc)
The disparity between intellect and character
Coles, Robert. “The Disparity between Intellect and Character.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 42.4 (1995): 1. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 30
July 2013. Find a copy
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A Harvard University professor remembers a discussion he had with a student concerned with straight-A students who could not be good people. The task
of connecting intellect to character is a daunting one for educators.
OVER 150 YEARS AGO, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture at Harvard University, which he ended with the terse assertion: “Character is higher than
intellect.” Even then, this prominent man of letters was worried (as many other writers and thinkers of succeeding generations would be) about the limits
of knowledge and the nature of a college’s mission. The intellect can grow and grow, he knew, in a person who is smug, ungenerous, even cruel.
Institutions originally founded to teach their students how to become good and decent, as well as broadly and deeply literate, may abandon the first
mission to concentrate on a driven, narrow book learning–a course of study in no way intent on making a connection between ideas and theories on one
hand and, on the other, our lives as we actually live them.
Students have their own way of realizing and trying to come to terms with the split that Emerson addressed. A few years ago, a sophomore student of
mine came to see me in great anguish. She had arrived at Harvard from a Midwestern, working-class background. She was trying hard to work her way
through college, and, in doing so, cleaned the rooms of some of her fellow students. Again and again, she encountered classmates who apparently had
forgotten the meaning of please, of thank you–no matter how high their Scholastic Assessment Test scores–students who did not hesitate to be rude,
even crude toward her.
One day she was not so subtly propositioned by a young man she knew to be a very bright, successful pre-med student and already an accomplished
journalist. This was not the first time he had made such an overture, but now she had reached a breaking point. She had quit her job and was preparing
to quit college in what she called “fancy, phony Cambridge.”
The student had been part of a seminar I teach, which links Raymond Carver’s fiction and poetry with Edward Hopper’s paintings and drawings–the
thematic convergence of literary and artistic sensibility in exploring American loneliness, both its social and its personal aspects. As she expressed her
anxiety and anger to me, she soon was sobbing hard. After her sobs quieted, we began to remember the old days of that class. But she had some
weightier matters on her mind and began to give me a detailed, sardonic account of college life, as viewed by someone vulnerable and hard-pressed by
it. At one point, she observed of the student who had propositioned her: “That guy gets all A’s. He tells people he’s in Group I [the top academic
category]. I’ve taken two moral-reasoning courses with him, and I’m sure he’s gotten A’s in both of them–and look at how he behaves with me, and I’m
sure with others.”
She stopped for a moment to let me take that in. I happened to know the young man and could only acknowledge the irony of his behavior, even as I
wasn’t totally surprised by what she’d experienced. But I was at a loss to know what to say to her. A philosophy major, with a strong interest in
literature, she had taken a course on the Holocaust and described for me the ironies she also saw in that tragedy–mass murder of unparalleled historical
proportion in a nation hitherto known as one of the most civilized in the world, with a citizenry as well educated as that of any country at the time.
Drawing on her education, the student put before me names such as Martin Heidegger, Carl Jung, Paul De Man, Ezra Pound–brilliant and accomplished
men (a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, a literary critic, a poet) who nonetheless had linked themselves with the hate at was Nazism and Fascism during
the 1930s. She reminded me of the willingness of the leaders of German and Italian universities to embrace Nazi and Fascist ideas, of the countless
doctors and lawyers and judges and journalists and schoolteachers, and, yes, even members of the clergy–who were able to accommodate themselves to
murderous thugs because the thugs had political power. She pointedly mentioned, too, the Soviet Gulag, that expanse of prisons to which millions of
honorable people were sent by Stalin and his brutish accomplices–prisons commonly staffed by psychiatrists quite eager to label those victims of a
vicious totalitarian state with an assortment of psychiatric names, then shoot them up with drugs meant to reduce them to zombies.
I tried hard, toward the end of a conversation that lasted almost two hours, to salvage something for her, for myself, and, not least, for a university that
I much respect, even as I know its failings. I suggested that if she had learned what she had just shared with me at Harvard–why, that was itself a
valuable education acquired. She smiled, gave me credit for a “nice try,” but remained unconvinced. Then she put this tough, pointed, unnerving question
to me: “I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what’s true, what’s important, what’s good. Well, how do you teach people to be
good?” And she added: “What’s the point of knowing good, if you don’t keep trying to become a good person?”
I suddenly found myself on the defensive, although all along I had been sympathetic to her, to the indignation she had been directing toward some of her
fellow students, and to her critical examination of the limits of abstract knowledge. Schools are schools, colleges are colleges, I averred, a complaisant
and smug accommodation in my voice. Thereby I meant to say that our schools and colleges these days don’t take major responsibility for the moral
values of their students, but, rather, assume that their students acquire those values at home. I topped off my surrender to the status quo with a shrug
of my shoulders, to which she responded with an unspoken but barely concealed anger. This she expressed through a knowing look that announced that
she’d taken the full moral measure of me.
Suddenly, she was on her feet preparing to leave. I realized that I’d stumbled badly. I wanted to pursue the discussion, applaud her for taking on a large
subject in a forthright, incisive manner, and tell her she was right in understanding that moral reasoning is not to be equated with moral conduct. I
wanted, really, to explain my shrug– point out that there is only so much that any of us can do to affect others’ behavior, that institutional life has its
own momentum. But she had no interest in that kind of self-justification–as she let me know in an unforgettable aside as she was departing my office: “I
wonder whether Emerson was just being ‘smart’ in that lecture he gave here. I wonder if he ever had any ideas about what to do about what was
worrying him–or did he think he’d done enough because he’d spelled the problem out to those
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She was demonstrating that she understood two levels of irony: One was that the study of philosophy–even moral philosophy or moral
reasoning–doesn’t necessarily prompt in either the teacher or the student a determination to act in accordance with moral principles. And, further, a
discussion of that very irony can prove equally sterile– again carrying no apparent consequences as far as one’s everyday actions go.
When that student left my office (she would soon leave Harvard for good), I was exhausted and saddened–and brought up short. All too often those of us
who read books or teach don’t think to pose for ourselves the kind of ironic dilemma she had posed to me. How might we teachers encourage our
students (encourage ourselves) to take that big step from thought to action, from moral analysis to fulfilled moral commitments? Rather obviously,
community service offers us all a chance to put our money where our mouths are; and, of course, such service can enrich our understanding of the
disciplines we study. A reading of Invisible Man (literature), Tally’s Corners (sociology and anthropology), or Childhood and Society (psychology and
psychoanalysis) takes on new meaning after some time spent in a ghetto school or a clinic. By the same token, such books can prompt us to think
pragmatically about, say, how the wisdom that Ralph Ellison worked into his fiction might shape the way we get along with the children we’re
tutoring–affect our attitudes toward them, the things we say and do with them.
Yet I wonder whether classroom discussion, per se, can’t also be of help, the skepticism of my student notwithstanding. She had pushed me hard, and I
started referring again and again in my classes on moral introspection to what she had observed and learned, and my students more than got the
message. Her moral righteousness, her shrewd eye and ear for hypocrisy hovered over us, made us uneasy, goaded us.
She challenged us to prove that what we think intellectually can be connected to our daily deeds. For some of us, the connection was established through
community service. But that is not the only possible way. I asked students to write papers that told of particular efforts to honor through action the high
thoughts we were discussing. Thus goaded to a certain self-consciousness, I suppose, students made various efforts. I felt that the best of them were
small victories, brief epiphanies that might otherwise have been overlooked, but had great significance for the students in question.
“I thanked someone serving me food in the college cafeteria, and then we got to talking, the first time,” one student wrote. For her, this was a decisive
break with her former indifference to others she abstractly regarded as “the people who work on the serving line.” She felt that she had learned
something about another’ s life and had tried to show respect for that life.
THE STUDENT who challenged me with her angry, melancholy story had pushed me to teach differently. Now, I make an explicit issue of the more than
occasional disparity between thinking and doing, and I ask my students to consider how we all might bridge that disparity. To be sure, the task of
connecting intellect to character is daunting, as Emerson and others well knew. And any of us can lapse into cynicism, turn the moral challenge of a
seminar into yet another moment of opportunism: I’ll get an A this time, by writing a paper cannily extolling myself as a doer of this or that “good deed”!
Still, I know that college administrators and faculty members everywhere are struggling with the same issues that I was faced with, and I can testify that
many students will respond seriously, in at least small ways, if we make clear that we really believe that the link between moral reasoning and action is
important to us. My experience has given me at least a measure of hope that moral reasoning and reflection can somehow be integrated into
students’–and teachers’–lives as they actually live them.
Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University. Copyright Chronicle of Higher Education Sep 22, 1995