I want to thank you….
One casualty of the expansiveness of rights talk is the virtue of gratitude. If, when I provide you, say, with a well-crafted syllabus, a promptly returned exam, or a fetching PowerPoint presentation—if there be such a thing—I am simply doing my duty, simply providing you with what you are owed, then gratitude to me is not morally required. Oh, you might be grateful to God (or the universe, if you prefer) to live in a place where people do their duties. And you might be grateful to your parents for helping you attend a place that cares about its faculty and staff fulfilling their obligations to students, for many universities appear less concerned about this than they should be. But gratitude is not owed to me, not owed to someone who is merely doing his or her duty. And the more you are owed by others, the smaller the likelihood that your failure to be grateful is morally problematic; the larger your array of rights, the smaller the range of optional benefits I might provide you.
Colleges and college students both struggle with what is owed to students, with students (and their families) tending to be more generous in their identification of what is owed and colleges more parsimonious, and not merely because it is in the self interest of each to incline in their respective directions. College costs a lot, an awful lot, and students and parents not surprisingly think that cost entitles students if not to a very high grade then at least to the conditions under which it is difficult not to achieve a pretty good grade. Few assume, by contrast, an entitlement to blogposts or to blogposts in which no infinitives are split. But why? Why think the high cost of college entitles one to certain grades or conditions of grading rather than a certain type of web-presence, a certain public face to the world? To what things, exactly, does paying a lot of money for college entitle one? And who decides this?
Every spring, one of the questions I commonly wrestle with is “What do we owe a student who wants a Berry degree but wants to take summer school courses somewhere else?” Usually a primary motivation is economic—a student will be at home, summer jobs are hard to find, and summer school courses are pretty cheap at Sunny Skies Community College or the University of Big Bluff State in Northeastern South Georgia. Do Berry students have a right to take a certain portion of their college credits during the summer off campus, with instructors and institutional policies with which we may be completely unfamiliar? Do Berry students have a right to satisfy some college requirements with online courses? Or, does the college have the moral right to require students who want a Berry degree to take courses only at Berry or at least to warn students that a Berry College degree with courses taken elsewhere is less valuable than a Berry College degree with only Berry courses? Do I have an obligation to tell a student that she will get what she pays for if she takes a philosophy course at Noneedtoread U?
Several years ago on campus we had a brief, unsatisfying conversation about whether students and others have a right to smoke on campus (and to smoke anywhere they darn well please) or whether Berry merely extends to them this privilege for which they ought to be grateful. Of course you can be extended privileges or benefits for which you ought not be grateful, and perhaps Berry College’s policies and practices with respect to smoking fall into this category. Should you be grateful if I invite you to dinner without telling you that I’m trying to get rid of a ridiculously bad dish I made a couple of days ago that I’m trying desperately to get rid of? Am I providing a student with a benefit for which he should be grateful if I give him an A or a C- he does not really deserve? What if I let students use laptops in my classes—is that really a benefit for which they should be grateful?
Ahh, summertime. By the way, don’t bother to say thanks for this post; I think I owed it to you.