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Tom Kennedy's Blog

On Berry General Education

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Comments Made to Parents of Prospective Students at Firsthand Friday, February 2014

Chances are that you, like almost all parents of potential college students, are concerned about how much college costs. And you want your child to get a job after college, so you are not as interested in the humanities, arts and social sciences, the collection of disciplines I represent as Dean of the Evans School at Berry, as you are in some of the other programs we offer at Berry. We in the humanities, arts and social sciences get that. It doesn’t make us happy and it doesn’t mean that we think you are right, but we get it. And we, too, want your child to get a job.

Whatever your child majors in at Berry, the likelihood is that more than a third of his or her courses will be with instructors from the Evans School and we think that’s a very good thing.  We call those courses foundational or core general education courses and we at Berry believe that those courses are just as important as the courses a student takes in his or her major. At Berry, we offer a complete education, and not just an area of expertise. We hope we are not preparing specialists at Berry; our aim is to prepare students who will be ready to live as responsible and informed citizens in this rapidly changing world in which we live. And that requires something more than specialization. We want your son or daughter to fall in love at Berry—to fall in love with ideas and various ways of thinking about things; to fall in love with beauty; to fall in love with care and responsibility.

To live as responsible and informed and caring citizens requires some grasp of what is going on in the world—what is happening in social institutions and political institutions. At Berry, your son or daughter might take a course in American politics with Professor Peter Lawler who served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, tasked with the responsibility of advising the president on what it means to respect the dignity of human life in a world in which our technological prowess may have outrun our wisdom. Or she might take an “Inside-Out” course with Sociology Professor Sarah Allred in which students study with and alongside of inmates in the Floyd County jail. To live successfully as a responsible and informed citizen requires skills of writing and speaking, but skills all by themselves are not enough. You need to have something worthy to write and speak about. You need to have some sense of what matters and how things matter and how much they matter. In different ways we address these questions in our composition classes with instructors like English professor Jim Watkins who at the same time he is teaching students how to organize and present their thoughts is also encouraging them to think about things like where their food comes from. Or with Professor Randy Richardson who at the same time he is conveying skills of public speaking is asking them to think about contemporary political rhetoric and what kind of speech is appropriate for citizens of a democracy. Or with Philosophy Professor Michael Papazian who thinks students will better understand what laws we should have and what laws we shouldn’t have if they have wrestled with Plato and the meaning of law. Or with Theology Professor Andrea Hollingsworth who believes that contemporary Christians will live more faithful lives if they understand the Bible and the great theologians of the faith as well as contemporary cognitive science. To live as responsible and informed American citizens requires us, I would argue, to be able to understand the culture and language of others, so your son might study Latin American literature with Professor David Slade, Spanish culture with Professor Lucia Llorente, 20th century Germany with Professor Christine Anton or Parisian culture and language with Professor Vincent Gregoire. 

To live as responsible and informed citizens requires some understanding of how things have gone and how things might have gone differently here in Georgia or the U.S. or abroad. Your daughter may study the Congo and post-colonialism in Africa with Professor Matt Stanard, and maybe that will bring her to a closer understanding of why the people of the Central African Republic are experiencing the horrors currently inflicted upon them, or she might study the American Civil War and the civil rights movement with Professor Jonathan Atkins and get a better sense of who her parents and grandparents are. Your son or daughter will attend a concert and she will understand and appreciate that contemporary piece that Professor Adam Hayes commissioned for the concert because of what she learned in her Music Appreciation class with Professor Lauren Denny Wright—it won’t be just noise to him. Or maybe he or she will come home and tell you “You gotta listen to the piece of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers we are playing in Jazz Ensemble. And you gotta come to our concert!” Or maybe she will say, “Can we go to the High Museum this weekend? I want us to see some stuff Professor Virginia Troy was talking about.”

What matters to us in the Evans School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences is what matters to you, I suspect: that your children live good lives, that your children develop into good citizens and good people, that they love what they ought to love, what is worthy of love. You have already spent a lot of time and a lot of money to that end—children aren’t cheap. We want to continue your good work. Majors—particular areas of study—are important, and the Evans School certainly offers those, but majors are not the only thing that is important; maybe not the most important thing. We are convinced that caring about our world, understanding the world, asking the right questions about the world, and developing the skills and knowledge and confidence to speak clearly and listen carefully to the world in all its wonder and complexity is crucial not only for the well-being of individuals—for you and me and our children and grandchildren—but also for the communities in which we live, and also for the world. At our best, that’s what Berry offers your children: Scholars who care about our world, teachers who care about their students, mentors to the next generation of our nation’s leaders.

Thomas D. Kennedy

Learning a Language

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Learning a Language

Comments delivered at the Omicron Sigma Chapter of Sigma Delta Pi Sociedad Nacional Honoraria Hispánica:

Even if you don’t speak the language, you can get by quite well in a foreign country if you have a handy little phrase book.  It helps, too, if you have a cute, exuberant, 6 year old. I know this from experience. From 1993-1995 my family lived in Cambridge, England and almost every vacation we headed to the continent (usually driving a large right-hand drive van on roads that were, quite sensibly, constructed for left-hand drive cars, unlike those in Britain where our van was from). We drove through France and Italy and Switzerland and Belgium and the Netherlands, phrase book at the ready. (I recommend Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Back Door phrase books; they served us very well!) One of our trips was to Barcelona and the Pyrenees of northern Spain. 

In high school I studied Spanish for two years—no, let me correct that—I was enrolled in Spanish courses for two years—with Señor Strauss. But I did very little studying in high school. Always fickle, in college I switched my allegiance to German (and then Greek and Hebrew and later a little French). Twenty some years later, lazy high school Spanish doesn’t leave you a lot to operate with in a foreign country, and that’s why you buy the phrasebook and carry the cute kid with you.

And, really, it isn’t that hard, is it? Dónde está el baño, por favor? And, no, you can’t understand the response, but if you stand there with a vacant, nervous look on your face and start fidgeting or, better yet, get your 6 year old kid to act like he really, really has to go, they will understand and they will point you in the right direction. Pointing is a universal language—though that isn’t true of other signs you might make with your hands. Dogs get pointing. So do monoglot American tourists. And,  “Cuánto cuesta?” If you are a tourist and you have money to spend, most folks will figure out how to communicate the essentials to you, especially if you have a cute kid ask them—and act out writing down the answer. Are there other essential phrases? Dónde hay buen café? That about does it.

And so it was for most of our trip in Spain. We travelled up into the Pyrenees Mountains in France and into Spain on small country roads, cows sometimes filling the lane in front of us as they moved from one grazing field to another.  We stopped in small villages and played pooh sticks on ancient Roman bridges after walks through the village. We travelled down the C-38 to the volcanic region and the market town of Olot before heading east to Besalú and Banyoles. We were on the trail of old Romanesque churches mostly—isn’t that what every 13 year old and six year old wants to do on vacation, visit old churches? The amazing west façade in Ripoli, Sant Pere Church in Besalú on Palm Sunday, centuries old black madonnas painted on the walls of ancient churches in the middle of nowhere in Catalonia. And, of course, then, Barcelona, where our excuse for our linguistic incompetence was that we couldn’t be expected to speak Catalan, after all, could we? Well, other than “Barthelona”, not Barcelona.

Barcelona, of course, is a great place for children of all ages, and especially for those who have spent a lot of time cooped up in a car with grown-ups who seem uninterested in much other than coffee, mountains, and old churches. Barcelona, of course, has Gaudí all over the place, and what could delight more than Gaudí’s wonderful architecture—the salamanders in the Parc Güell or that wonderful entry into the park; or the Casa Batlló or La Sagrada Familia. And were Gaudi not enough, there is Parc de Joan Miró; and La Rambla would be a great place for a kid to run if only his parents would let go of his hand. And, of course, food. Wonderfully tasty food. And maybe something other than plato del dia. Perhaps Paella with fresh seafood. And Crème Caramel for dessert!

The height of the trip for our children, though, was the Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres. The museum is a large pink building decorated with bread rolls all over the sides and large eggs at the top. The museum is as strange and wonderful inside as it is outside. Our children reveled in Dalí’s wild imagination as we toured the museum—the Car Naval in the patio, the Mae West room—behind a large group of American senior citizens. As expected, these Americans were loud, and by and large they found Dalí’s work both dumb and disturbing. They should have stayed on the bus and left the museum to us kids.

Apart from a very brief visit to Mexico City, fifteen years passed before my next foray into a Spanish-speaking climate. This time I was, at least initially, travelling by myself, to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to learn about environmental issues and sustainability practices in these two very different Latin American countries. I landed in San José, joined a group of American professors, and we travelled around Costa Rica with our guides, an American who had lived in Costa Rica for more than a decade and a native Costa Rican coffee grower activist intellectual. We travelled from coast to coast, from shore to mountain in Costa Rica. We carefully and respectfully waited approval from the heavily armed Nicaraguan border guards before entering Nicaragua on our all day boat ride from Costa Rica to Lake Nicaragua to Rio San Juan to El Castillo, a small riverboat village which is accessible only by boat. A village filled with satellite dishes contributed to the village by a candidate in the last election. A village where the kids went to a little open-air shop on the main street to play video games on old tv sets. A village, just like everywhere else on this trip, in which you could get by with a native speaker or two as your guides, a phrase book, and the generosity of your host people and a smile. (Or even, in my case, without the smile.)

Those are my journeys—so far. You, I suspect, have had your own travels. And, like me, you are daydreaming about your next trip. Where you will go? What you will do? I’ve a pilgrimage to do, but I’m not sure that Camino de Santiago is the right one for me. But if not that, what?

Why do we travel? We have different reasons, different motivations, though for all of us we travel because, in some sense, we want our world to be bigger. For some, it is acquisitiveness that drives us. A bigger world is a world in which we’ve gotten more than we had. For such, travel is about consumption. There is something over there that I don’t own, experiences I haven’t had. I want those experiences. I need to acquire them. 

For others it is less about having something we don’t yet have, less about adding to the collection of photos or experiences that rival or top those our friends have had, and more about the appreciation of beauty in its natural and creative forms, of being moved by a sunset in a Pyrenees valley, of marveling at buildings designed by Gaudí. It is not about consuming something, not about trying to own something we do not own. It is about something bigger than us. The experience of beauty expands our world. Beauty, which comes in many shapes and forms, transcends you and me and our country. In travel, the experience of beauty enlarges our world.

A desire for understanding, too, motivates travel, for understanding itself is world enhancing, and world enlarging. Travel rightly and well, and self-understanding is an inevitable result as we learn about ourselves by engaging other people, and other cultures and cultural objects that, we discover, are like us and our culture and our cultural artifacts in surprising ways and sometimes others that we discover are in other ways markedly different from us. I learn about myself. I learn about the world I share with others. And with this understanding, my world is expanded. 

This experience can be morally formative, can teach me, if I will let it, that I am not the center of the universe, that the story of this world may be a story I share in, but it is not my story as such. When I travel I can learn how much the story of the world is, in fact, my story. I love strolling La Ramblas. The smile of the Catalan who enters the Parc Güell is my smile, too. I am moved by Dalí’s crucifixion of Jesus just like that group of Glaswegians. I like running and I like coffee, just like my coffee-growing friend, Guillermo, and like him, I worry about how the demands for beef to eat are affecting the rain forests in Costa Rica. The story of other peoples is very much my story. And yet it is not. This I learn, too, as I travel. I nap in a hammock, but I do not sleep, night after night, in one. I have much different expectations with respect to toilets and hot water. I can, unlike most of the people I see in Nicaragua, go where I want to go when I want to go and I do not have to travel on a crowded boat-bus. The story of the world in all its beauty and richness and wonder is a story I share with others. And when I travel well, I see not only that, but I also learn from how different the world is as inhabited by others.

Or I might. But for you who are inducted into Sigma Delta Pi today, there is no might, is there?  Your study of Spanish has already enlarged and expanded your world. Your world is considerably richer, both aesthetically and morally, from your study of Spanish. Consider this: In your study of Spanish (and in your excellence in studying Spanish) you have implicitly declared that there is a story different than yours that is worthy of your attention, worthy of your trying to understand. You have said (and your motivation for this is irrelevant) by your studying Spanish that you get that this world is not all about you, that there is an other with a language and a culture worthy of engagement, and a language and a culture that will likely surprise you both by how different it is from yours and how similar it is to yours. By your excellence in the study of Spanish you have recognized the value in something other than you. And that is to say that your study of Spanish is a major moral achievement, in some sense and however momentarily or however incomplete, your study expresses at least a partial displacement of the fat relentless ego (as the philosopher Iris Murdoch put it) that dogs us all. Your accomplishment in Spanish is a moral accomplishment. Your world has been morally enlarged.

And the same is true aesthetically. In your study of Spanish you have encountered and have experienced artworks in a way that those with less familiarity with the language or the culture cannot. It is one thing to see photographs of Casa Batlló; it is another thing entirely to see it as you walk the streets of Barcelona. One thing to read Twenty Poems and a Song of Despair and another thing to have read Veinte poemas de amor y una cancíon desesperada.

But perhaps that is too abstract. I have told you that one can get along quite well in a non-English speaking country with a good phrasebook, a cute kid, and/or some native speakers. All that is true enough. I can honor the people of the Pyrenees by visiting churches that have been valued and visited by their people for centuries; I can marvel at that at which they marvel. I can show my respect for Barcelonans by taking in, properly, the Sagrada Familia; I can revel in that in which they revel. But these are objects, not people. What you can do, because you have studied the language as you have, is engage a wider array of objects and what you can do is show your respect for the people, is honor the individuals of Spain or Costa Rica or Nicaragua or Mexico by speaking with them in their tongue because you have learned their language as you have. Your accomplishment today is an academic accomplishment, to be sure. But it is also a moral accomplishment. Your world is bigger, morally and aesthetically, because of your excellence in the study of Spanish.

I congratulate you on that. Berry has done something right by providing you with this opportunity to excel in Spanish, and I am grateful for that. Build on that. Travel wisely and well, in small groups, and use your language skills to engage others, to express your recognition of the beauty of their world and, with the words that you can speak to them, the value and dignity of their lives.

Entrepreneurialism and All That

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Like many other colleges and universities thinking about mission and purpose, here at Berry we’ve begun a conversation about entrepreneurialism (or, if you prefer, entrepreneurism) and what an “entrepreneurial mindset” should look like in a liberal arts context. A starting reminder for us has been that our college bears the name of an extraordinary entrepreneur, Martha Berry, who saw a problem, developed a plan to fix it, took risks, revised her plan, took more risks and continued to adapt her project to current social and economic realities. And if Ms. Berry was an entrepreneur, doesn’t that pretty much seal our commitment to the project?

Most academic conversations about entrepreneurship begin, naturally, with trying to get a handle on what entrepreneurship and entrepreneurialism is. And most humanists, of course, are immediately curious about the history of the term and rush to the Oxford English Dictionary. Entrepreneur is an old French term, originally referring to someone who took upon himself or herself some project or undertaking. Introduced into English in the early nineteenth century, its context was originally the arts. An entrepreneur was one who manages or “gets up” public performances, usually musical performances. By the end of the century the business world had claimed the term. Thus, as the OED notes, in 1889 R. T. Ely in his Introduction to Political Economy wrote, “We have… been obliged to resort to the French language for a word to designate a person who organizes and directs the productive factors, and we call such a one an entrepreneur.”  It is worth noting that the element of risk and chance, implicit in the earlier arts use of entrepreneur, appears absent in Ely’s discussion, as is any element of innovation. An entrepreneur is a manager or director, a person in the middle who is involved in productive activity of some sort. A necessary, but not especially sexy, role (not unlike that of the academic middle manager, or dean).

Today, while all the connotations of entrepreneur and entrepreneurism seem (at least to its academic champions) to be positive, innovation, adaptability and an aversion to risk aversion seem the most admirable and essential qualities of the entrepreneurial character. (We began talking about an “entrepreneurial mindset” though I suspect character comes closer to what we really have in mind than mindset, whatever a mindset is.) These are the qualities that have made America great. These are the qualities that will keep America at the top of the economic ladder. These qualities are essential to society, and not just to the economy, hence the value of being a social entrepreneur, one who perceives social needs and challenges and innovatively takes risks to address these challenges. Entrepreneurism is not self-aggrandizement, at least not necessarily.

Who could complain about apple pie, especially a la mode? Likewise with entrepreneurialism, as we talk about it. And even if entrepreneurialism expresses, once again, the American enamoring of the new and valorizes the individual critic of the status quo, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what America is all about? In its place, who could be against entrepreneurialism and training students to be entrepreneurs? No one, perhaps, if entrepreneurialism knows its place. The problem is in identifying its place and, having identified its appropriate place, determining how to develop entrepreneurial traits and insuring that other important traits of character are developed alongside the entrepreneurial traits, all easier said than done.

Do we—in this case, we liberal arts educators—want everyone to be an entrepreneur? No more than we want everyone to be a leader, I should think. I’ve been listening to Bill Evans’ You Must Remember Spring a lot the last few days. Eliot Zigmund on drums is fine, but the real magic of the album is the responsiveness of bassist Eddie Gomez to Evans’s piano. There is freedom in Gomez’s phrasing, to be sure, but that freedom is always about what Evans is doing. Gomez is not entrepreneurial here in any plausible sense of the term, and for that we can be grateful.

Given the cost of a college education, it is no wonder that we resort to the language of business to describe our aspirations for our work and for our students. And given the diversity of the modern academy, and our many competing and conflicting values, no wonder that the language and values of commerce makes the loudest claims upon us. But there are other and perhaps better ways for at least some of us to talk about things, ways that serve to remind us all that we are not just consumers or innovative producers of products that others may consume. The language of vocation, originally religious language, may yet serve that purpose.

So rather than think of Ms. Berry as an entrepreneur, I’ll continue to think of her as someone who, in a rather surprising way, discovered her vocation. And that’s the hope I have for my students: that like Ms. Berry they will somehow discover their vocations. Some of them perhaps as entrepreneurs. Others, perhaps as artists, with the sensitivity and skill of Bill Evans. Still others to be an Eddie Gomez to some Bill Evans. Somewhere. Or even to be an Eliot Zigmund to the magic of a Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez.

 

Ahhh, yip yip yip yip yip

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Ahhh, yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip Mum mum mum mum mum mum…

 

               A story today in Inside Higher Education reports on North Carolina governor Patrick McCrory’s recent criticism of the liberal arts and his state’s flagship universities. McCrory thinks public education money needs to be directed to programs that graduate students who get jobs. He suggests that neither he nor the citizens of North Carolina need to support those programs and disciplines in N.C.’s public universities that turn out students who can’t don’t find work pretty quickly following graduation. Go to college to get a job.

Now I don’t think it irresponsible of the chief executive of the Tar Heel State to be concerned about public spending and to want to explore avenues for the efficient delivery of a high quality education. Who could argue with that?  Education is expensive, and I don’t doubt that there is a good deal of fluff in a many areas in the N.C. publics (and maybe in the N.C. privates too, for that matter). And the governor may have in mind some complicated efficiency formula that considers not only whether graduates are getting jobs, but how much it costs the state to educate the students in those programs from which students get jobs. So it could turn out that he is considering cutting even programs from which people get jobs if it takes too much of the citizens’ money to prepare students for those jobs. Maybe you can pretty easily find work as an astrophysicist following graduation, but if it costs the state an investment of a couple of million dollars to produce each astrophysicist, the state might be justified in letting someone else educate them. And, it may be that although the overall number of philosophy majors who are employed one year after graduation is small, given how little money it takes to educate philosophers, philosophy programs may actually stack up pretty well against basketball and football programs once all the costs are considered.

Or, for all I know, the governor, himself a graduate of a small N.C. liberal arts college, has a complex liberal arts-ish theory that the educational roles and responsibilities of the colleges in the private sector differ from public colleges and universities. He may think, for example, that public universities and private colleges have different aims and that the state of North Carolina (like all states) needs private colleges to do important educating that the states are not willing and able to provide (or provide efficiently) in their public institutions. The governor could believe that the state of North Carolina really needs folks who have thought long and hard about the value of beauty, say, but that the privates can do a much better job than the publics when it comes to educating about such values as beauty, goodness, religion, and so on. There are stranger theories than this out there.

Or it may be that the governor is far more Republican than even he is aware—Republican in the Platonic sense. Perhaps he believes public education, education for the state’s masses, is rightly aimed at preparing the working class to work well, and that the elite group of philosopher-rulers, and only this group, requires a liberal arts education. As long as there are liberal arts colleges around it saves the state a great deal of money to have them educate the philosopher-rulers. With an appropriate division of labor, the state concentrates on the education of the working class, perhaps.

So I’m not sure exactly what the governor believes, and what really lies behind his criticism of the liberal arts, but if I were a citizen of North Carolina I would be concerned. The governor seems to think that the sole virtue of the state’s citizens is their employability. This and his apparent suggestion that being employed is the necessary and sufficient condition for human flourishing is troubling. The state does have an interest in employed citizens, to be sure, especially having subsidized their education; their tax money is essential if the state is to execute many of its duties. But just as a good person knows that there are some jobs one ought not to do, no matter how good the pay, so a good state knows better than to permit companies to scrape off the tops of its mountains just because employment is a good thing. Working and earning money are, at least typically, pretty good things. But they are not the only good things and not the best of good things. All of us aspire to more than a good job. We want to love and to be loved. We want to understand things. We want to play. We want to rest.

Some of us want to figure out whether we should quit our jobs in order to take care of our elderly parents. Some of us want to know whether there is any point in fighting again with our teenage kid about whether she is spending too much time playing videogames when she could be practicing trumpet. Some of us would like to take lesser jobs so we can volunteer more, at church, at the local soup kitchen, with our political parties. What should we do? These are hard questions, questions that involve clashes of values and clashes of different types of values. How we answer them and whether we answer them well depends, to a great extent, on who we are, on who we’ve become.

And whoever we are, we are not just workers. Discovering who we are, discovering who we want to be, is no easy thing, especially when technologies of connectedness make it very easy to be multiple characters, to be many people rather than an integrated self. A liberal arts education may not be necessary for developing that identity and character. Nor may it be sufficient. But, at its best, a liberal arts education can remind a generation greatly in need of this reminding, that our employment is not the only thing we ought to care about, that you can get a job and lose your soul.

It's only words

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I’m a big fan of the blog Lingua Franca on the Chronicle of Higher Education website. The column’s bloggers don’t act as language police, but they do point out some craziness and confusion in language use as in Geoffrey Pullam’s blog today on the passive voice—“Passive Writing at the ‘Daily Planet’” 

Nor do I have much desire to act as a language or concept policeman—greater clarity and understanding would suffice for me, but lately the alleged distinction between “ethics” and ”morality” has led to some frustration, or annoyance, or irritation—ok, I’m not sure exactly what emotional state it has led to, though it must be noticeable enough to motivate writing this, though not bothersome enough for me to do much else (other than to whine to my longsuffering wife). (But, hey, I longsuffer, too, sometimes, don’t I?) 

For me, the “ethics”/”morality” distinction is a distinction without a difference. I prefer “morality”, and “moral” (perhaps this has something to do with the Latin origins of the term), but I use the two terms interchangeably unless I am discussing the philosophical or theological study of morality, in which case I may talk about “ethics”, “moral philosophy,” or “moral theology.” And I assume I’m pretty normal in this respect. But in a recent meeting we were talking about leadership and, especially, “moral and ethical leadership.” (I think people do tend to use the two terms in that order; is there anything more to that than that it just sounds a little better? I’m not sure.) I asked whether the use of the two terms together was just for emphasis, that we were endorsing really good leadership (“It’s both moral and ethical”) as opposed to merely pretty good leadership. “No,” my boss answered. 

And she would appear to be correct—of course!—if we are talking about how people tend to use the two terms or how they think they use the two terms. Go ahead and google “the difference between ethics and morality” and you’ll find in website after website “experts” telling you that there really is a difference between the two terms and that you should use the terms correctly. These experts disagree on what the difference is, exactly, though they are firm that there is a difference that ought to be observed.

Roughly, many seem to use the two terms in this way: Morality refers to personal, private beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, your own personal, private code of behavior. Ethics refers to some sort of publicly agreed upon standards of behavior. How and when and where this public agreement took place is an intriguing question, as is how one is supposed to know what these standards are. But I suspect that what is really being tracked by this distinction is the influence of professions and professional codes of ethics the last fifty years. Librarians have one, court reporters have one, journalists, k-12 educators, and, even lawyers. Academics—college and university teachers and researchers—don’t (though they may be members of some professional organization that does). 

Despite this abundance of professional codes, a not uncommon view is that the function of codes of ethics in America today, the real work that talk of ethics does in contemporary professional life, is primarily aimed at covering one’s butt, making sure one hasn’t done anything one’s institution—medical, legal, educational—could be sued for. “Is it ethical?” is reduced to, “Can we be sued for that?” and some folks rightly object to enervating ethics in this way, though it may not be clear what the alternative is.

Especially if you don’t like “morality”. I have at least one colleague who seems to feel about morality much as she feels about religion. It’s maybe ok if you keep it private, but it is offensive to bring it up in public. By contrast, it’s ok to talk about ethics in public, because, it would appear—well, there seem to be two possibilities, each problematic. The first possibility is that morality, but not ethics, is tainted by association with religion. Perhaps, the assumption is, that this is just true by definition. But that, of course, is question-begging. Delineate the two domains and then we can look and see whether either is any less “tainted” than the other by association with religion.

And when the lines are drawn, I suspect the line will be drawn between the public arena and the private arena. Morality is private. Ethics is public. But can we really decide which issues are moral and which issues are ethical, employing this public-private criterion? Moral-ethical issues rarely divide themselves up so neatly.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is titled, “Retain Affirmative Action—Because It’s the Morally Right Thing to Do.” Did the author just make a mistake? Did he really mean “ethically right” since affirmative action is clearly a public issue? And should we correct an individual when she talks about her personal work ethic rather than her personal work morality? What if a student thinks that her dining hall should serve more local food, more food produced and shipped no more than 100 miles? Is this a moral opinion or an ethical opinion? How could we tell? Would we have to do some sort of empirical study and if more than 50% share the view, then it is ethical but if fewer students share the view it is moral?

And of course many issues in the domain of moral-ethical goodness or rightness are, arguably, both moral and ethical. Few think that it is ok to say or think racist things as long as you don’t do it publicly. A racist is a racist and isn’t that a problem, whether or not her racism manifests itself publicly? If I really believe that it is wrong for me to torture others doesn’t that entail, all things being equal, that it is wrong for others, including my nation, to torture others?

So, a distinction without a difference. Ethics, morality, one term originating in Greek, the other in Latin, but both referring to the same domain—whatever that domain is. (And that may be the harder and more interesting question.)

It’s only words, or the concepts to which the words refer. But words are all we have once we step outside ourselves.  It’s worth trying to sort out the difference—when there is one—between terms, worthwhile knowing how you use language and trying to use language consistently. Realizing that things can matter, that there is something valuable about paying attention to how we think and speak even if it makes no practical difference, is one of the things that makes a liberal arts education so important, I think.

 

tdk

I want to thank you

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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.

 

tdk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He Was a Friend of Mine

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He was a friend of mine 

  

His former students, one after another, repeated those words—“He was a friend of mine”—at the memorial service a few Saturdays ago for Gordon Carper, historian and faculty leader at Berry from 1975 until his retirement in the early years of this century. They thanked his wife, Joyce, and his two sons Noel and Todd, for sharing Gordon with them and they thanked Gordon for sharing his life with them and for sharing Joyce, and his two sons (and later his grandchildren) with them. The crowd for the memorial was large and appreciative, appreciative of the four former students who spoke of their professor and the many more who came to pay their respects, appreciative not only of a professor and his family who could change lives, but appreciative as well of students whose lives could be changed by a professor. Appreciative of good teachers and good students, for you can’t have one without the other. We were honoring Gordon Carper, to be sure. But we were also honoring teachers, teachers whose lives made a big difference for at least some of their students, and their students. 

  

I do not know whether this is true of all faculty under 40 years of age, but my guess is that for almost everyone of us over 40 we became college teachers—and I suspect it was the teaching that came first and the scholarship we happily discovered later—because of some Gordon Carper in our lives. What we do now we do because at some point we came to realize what a Gordon Carper had done for us. Exactly what a Gordon Carper (or, in my case, a Bill Kuykendall) did to change us varies. For some of us, it was simply that someone we respected and admired exhibited a passion and intellectual seriousness that we could tell was not just acting or entertaining. We were drawn to the light in their eyes. For others of us, it may have been a really smart person taking our thoughts or our expressions of our thoughts seriously, taking us seriously.  

  

Professor William (Bill) Henry Frazier Kuykendall took me seriously enough to give me a D in a class in Old Testament Archaeology (as I recall, my only class in which my older brother was also enrolled, and that goes some way towards explaining my D, I would argue!) Kuykendall knew I was capable of doing A work and he knew that I knew I was capable of doing A work. He also knew that I would not be completely demoralized by a D. So he gave me the D I deserved—well, that he thought I deserved; surely I did at least C work—and we both got on with our lives. I took additional courses with him. I got some A’s. We talked a lot. He was a friend of mine. 

  

I worry that we are fast losing or, perhaps, have already lost even the possibility of faculty like Gordon Carper and Bill Kuykendall, and of faculty changing the lives of students. We place a lot of demands upon our faculty. We expect them to be not only excellent teachers, but also productive scholars and active in service on multiple committees. We want them to be good citizens, too, and good family members if they have families. Any friendship is hard work and time consuming. And a friendship between a faculty member and a student, as Aristotle recognized, is almost impossible. 

  

For Aristotle, friendship requires an equality that rarely characterizes the student-faculty relationship. The Gordon Carpers and the Bill Kuykendalls of the teaching profession realize this, of course, and thus act to elevate the student. Sometimes it is simply a matter of encouraging or enabling a student to transcend the mundane. Often it is helping a student move from the assumption that a college education is mostly about vocational preparation and credentialing to a conviction that an engagement with this event or text or idea or work is worthy of our attention—worthy of our love. Our Gordon Carpers and Bill Kuykendalls knew that in most instances we, their students, would not soon understand an event or artifact as well as they, but we could become their equals in love and respect for that which we studied. They made us better lovers, which is probably not why our parents sent us to the colleges we went to. And not why the parents of our students send their children to Berry. 

  

Usually I am pretty skeptical about the claims some colleagues frequently make about Berry’s unique education of head, heart and hands. We may agree, more or less, on what an education of the head looks like, but what some mean by “education of the heart” strikes me as either silly or dangerous or mostly just empty talk. Until I remember what Bill Kuykendall taught me. Until I hear testimonies like those I heard about Gordon Carper. An Education of the Heart by Educators of the Heart. 

  

We—society, the economy, parents, the academy, private liberal arts colleges with aspirations, etc.—haven’t made it easy for a faculty member to be an Educator of the Heart, not as easy as it once was, I think. But, though perhaps fewer in number, educators of the heart still exist, as do ready students. I am privileged to know a few.  

  

  

Thomas D. Kennedy 

 

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