On the first day of class, Professor William Hundert stands before his high school boys in the film The Emperor’s Club and succinctly explains the purpose he is reaching for with his students. “Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?”
June is a time of graduation and having recently completed another exchange – via Skype – to ethics students in New Hampshire, I’ve been thinking about the purpose behind education. There seems to be so much focus on the process of acquiring knowledge and less about one’s moral purpose in using that knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowledge is important, vital, but it’s not the only thing.
Professor Hundert sees his job as molding the character of his students, he explains to a troubled student’s father.
“Mold him?,” the father responds. “Jesus God in Heaven, son. You’re not gonna mold my boy. Your job is to teach my son. You teach him his times tables. Teach him why the world is round. Teach him who killed who and when and where. That is your job. You, sir, will not mold by son. I will mold him.”
While I believe that parents take a great part in shaping the character of their sons and daughters, they are not, nor should they be, the sole influence. I believe that colleges and universities share in the responsibility to not only teach but inspire students to the highest standards of civic virtue and character.
In the Contemporary Ethical Issues classes that I have had the opportunity to participate in with Professor Stephen Ambra at The New Hampshire Technical Institute, my job has been to put forth the knowledge and skills necessary for ethical decision-making during the first full day that runs from 8:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon that continues for five to six days.
After that first day of groundwork, Steve and I would facilitate discussions surrounding a variety of ethical issues. The students’ job would be to engage in discussion, offering points of view, based on the ethical values and decision-making model offered on the first day.
The best periods would come when the students would move into a question of their own. Steve and I would then engage them in Socratic dialog to work the issue at hand. Disagreements would decidedly happen, even within the ethical values they cited. However, it was that spark of ethical reasoning that was exciting to see. They were actively engaged in working the problem, many times based on their own experiences.
The students’ pre-class assignment was to write a paper detailing a story that they connected with my book, What Do You Stand For?, that was used as the baseline text.
“Everyone has general ethical principles,” Ashley, a 2011 student, wrote in one paper. “The real test is not in the principle itself but in how you use that principle in life.”
The issues presented in class involved more than simple honesty.
After raising the question – is honesty always the best policy? – a nursing student described how her current job required her to lie. She continued by explaining how she was caring for some Alzheimer’s patients. One such patient kept asking where his wife was. She was overdue for her daily visit and he was becoming agitated. Knowing that his wife had died the previous year, this nursing student tried everything she could think of to keep him calm which sometimes included withholding the truth from him.
Every student in the class came away with the understanding that sometimes withholding the truth from an individual can be a necessary part of compassion. It has been these kinds of experiences combined with both the tools and discussion that give students a larger view of life beyond a career.
“Character,” Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids.”