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The Source of Our Moral Obtuseness

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The Friday WSJ carried an op-ed by a Lit Prof from Drexel University that said an over-emphasis on STEM education could account for the moral obtuseness so evident today.  The piece really does do a marvelous job of diagnosing the problem:

The great works of literature, history and philosophy that used to be at the center of a college education have been shunted to the sidelines or discarded entirely over the past two decades or more. This is a loss on many fronts, but one example is the debate around Asia Argento. One of the first whistle-blowers against Harvey Weinstein, Ms. Argento has since been accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year old boy.

For some, Ms. Argento’s action cancels out her earlier complaint. Others feel the need to dismiss the accusation against her as either fraudulent or trivial. Both approaches strike me as ignorant. This woman could certainly have been the victim of abuse and still be herself a perpetrator. One doesn’t negate the other. It simply shows that people can be blind where they should be most acutely conscious. We see this all the time when our friends complain about traits in others that are prominent in themselves.

Few people seem to be able to reconcile two overlapping truths—that someone can have a valid grievance in one context and be guilty of some version of the same thing in another. I see this as a failure of education. By “education,” I do not mean the workshops that teach us what not to say or do to avoid offending others. That is training, not education (and I’m not sure how well it actually sticks).

And in that quote, in the differentiation of training and education, she begins to get to the true heart of the problem.  But her conclusion:

The emphasis on STEM fields in higher education reflects the need for expertise in a high-tech world. But this has tended to make the “soft” fields of the humanities seem weak and easy. Science, engineering and finance may be hard, but literature, history and philosophy are complex—impossible to resolve with a yes-or-no, right-or-wrong answer. This is precisely what constitutes their importance as a tool for living. Metaphysics takes its name from the idea that it goes beyond “hard” science into the realm of moral and intellectual speculation, where no empirical proof is possible.

The humanities teach understanding, but they also teach humility: that we may be wrong and our enemies may be right, that the past can be criticized without our necessarily feeling superior to it, that people’s professed motives are not the whole story, and that the division of the world into oppressors and victims is a simplistic fairy tale.

We speak about the decline of the humanities without fully recognizing how it has hurt our society. If we want our nation to heal and thrive, we must put the study of literature, history and philosophy back at the center of our curricula and require that students study complex works—not just difficult ones.

undoes what she is trying to accomplish.  The piece is, frankly, maddening.

She breaks down the problem as one of a binary, “simplistic fairy tale” view of morality, but then her article is in reality a binary, simplistic battle for funding in the university – science vs the humanities, Thor vs. Loki, the Avengers vs Thanos.  But the self-contradictory nature of the piece itself does not stop there.  She talks about how the humanities teach humility while bragging about the humanities in apparent naked self-interest.

You see, the true heart of the problem is not humanities vs the science rather it is, as she hints in her opening, that we no longer educate, we train.  We no longer attempt to form people, all we do is inform them.  The sciences are not devoid of moral content, nor are the humanities devoid of a need for rigorous thinking and analysis.

Morality, you see, is just a set of rules that can be taught.  What I find interesting is that the works the author cites as teaching “morality” are pieces by noted atheists (with the notable exception of Shakespeare).  More fascinating is that the self-contradictory nature of the piece illustrates how morality, unbound from religion, will always lose its way.  Morality has to be rooted in something, otherwise it simply creates unsolvable dilemmas.

Morality requires roots that give one the strength and resolve to live by it.  In the works she cites people knew adultery was bad, Willie Loman knew he should be a good parent, and everybody knows murder is wrong.  That’s morality. And yet the characters strayed from the morality they knew and understood.  Something more than a complex understanding of morality is required.

Why do you think moral thinking has been reduced to the binary she decries?  I think such simplistic thinking is a counter to a world where morality has become too complex – people simply want to know what is right and what is wrong.  But the fact of the matter is life is so complex we can never create a moral code that anticipates everything and tells us how to react.  No, we have to build people of sufficient character to make good decisions, moral decisions, when confronted with the unique situation.

We have to get back to forming people, not simply informing them.  Maybe there is a role for religion in education after all.

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