Moral Clarity and Academic Virtues at Christian Colleges


University of Virginia German professor Chad Wellmon‘s piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education has been getting a lot of attention.  Wellmon argues, in the wake of the white supremacy march at UVA, that universities are not in a position to offer moral clarity to students or the larger society.

Here is a taste:

The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity. Individual faculty members had spent the days and weeks before Saturday’s rally denouncing and organizing against the white supremacists. But as an institution, UVa muddled along through press releases, groping for a voice and a clear statement. By late last night, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ian Baucom, had written to faculty members to decry “the evil of racism, the evil of violence, the evil of hate.” But Sullivan’s missives, especially her initial ones, read like press releases from the bowels of a modern bureaucracy, not the thoughts of a human responding to hate.

And that makes a lot of sense. What can the president of a contemporary university say? The University of Virginia is many things — a health center, a federal contractor, a sports franchise, an event venue, and, almost incidentally, a university devoted to education and knowledge. It is most often, as Clark Kerr wrote in 1963, a multiversity, with little common purpose but the perpetuation of itself and its procedures. Why should my colleagues and I look to our chief executive for moral leadership? As a university president, Sullivan is, in the words of Thorstein Veblen, a captain of erudition, not the leader of a community bound to a common moral mission.

Wellmon adds:

Yet even Weber acknowledged that the university is not without its own values and virtues. And whatever Stanley Fish might think, these values are not simply bureaucratic or professional procedures. They are robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

As the hate on display in Charlottesville made clear, however, these scholarly practices and virtues are also insufficient. The university has moral limitations. Universities cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good. They cannot provide ultimate moral ends. Their goods are proximate. Faculty members, myself included, need to acknowledge that most university leaders lack the language and moral imagination to confront evils such as white supremacy. They lack those things not because of who they are, but, as Weber argued, because of what the modern research university has become. Such an acknowledgment is also part of the moral clarity that we can offer to ourselves and to our students. We have goods to offer, but they are not ultimate goods.

And so universities need to look outside themselves and partner with other moral traditions and civic communities, as my inspiring faculty colleagues here in Charlottesville have done for months in anticipation of this weekend. Universities may not be able to impart comprehensive visions of the good, but they are uniquely positioned to help students engage in open debates and conversations about the values they hold most dear.

Acknowledging the limitations of the academy might help us to reconsider the bromides issued by university press offices in our name — the automatic incantation of “our values” of diversity and inclusion. What kind of goods are these, and why do we defend them?

They are not ends in themselves, but they contribute to the primary purpose of the modern university —— to create and care for knowledge and to pass that knowledge on by teaching our students. Diversity is good for learning. The knowledge project of the university is sustained and best served through what the Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen calls “epistemic egalitarianism,” the idea that “we can cultivate collective intelligence that is better than what any individual can achieve.” Our common pursuit of knowledge is richer and truer when it seeks contributions from the broadest diversity of peoples.

I largely agree with Wellmon’s assessment of large research universities. When functioning at their best, these universities should indeed be places of intellectual diversity.  And yes, such communities of  inquiry do have moral limitations.  (I say “functioning at their best” because often times intellectual diversity is lacking. Moreover, the lefty professors that dominate most humanities departments are often some of the most outspoken moralizers on campus).

I don’t teach at one of these places.  I teach at a relatively small Christian college.  Many view this kind of college as a place that combines liberal learning with the “moral traditions,” the “civic communities,” the “moral imagination,” and the “comprehensive vision of the good” that Wellmon writes about.

So what might Wellmon’s piece mean for Christian colleges?

First, it is worth noting that all Christian colleges are different.  Colleges connected directly with a denomination or a religious tradition will be able to articulate a “moral tradition” or “comprehensive vision of the good” more effectively because they represent the educational arm of a very particular spiritual community.  At other Christian colleges, perhaps those without a specific church connection (mostly products of early 20th-century non-denominational fundamentalism), moral clarity comes from very carefully defined statements of faith or community expectations.

My college prides itself in its commitment to Christian diversity and intellectual hospitality for all who confess Christian faith at its bare minimum (the Apostles Creed). At schools like this, a common approach to the Christian (moral) tradition, or a “comprehensive vision of the good,” is harder to come by.  When there is not a common vision of the Christian faith, rooted in a particular creed or tradition, it makes conversation very difficult because there are few commonly-shared presuppositions about how Christianity should work in an educational institution or in the larger world. At least at public universities there is a shared secularism that requires everyone in a faculty meeting to speak in a language that other members of the community can understand.

Second, I often wonder if Christian colleges have the opposite problem from the one Wellmon describes at the University of Virginia and universities like it.  Christian colleges are very good at moralizing.  Ask students to read a text written by an author with whom they disagree and their initial response will be moral condemnation. Sometimes faculty might even think that casting judgement upon the author is part of their “prophetic” responsibility as Christians.  The classroom thus becomes a church, not a space for intellectual engagement with ideas.

Christian colleges need to do a lot better job at teaching Wellmon’s academic virtues: “openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, [and] a respect for argument.” Christian colleges are not four-year camps to train Christian activists. Residential life and other co-curricular staff need to attend to the spiritual, emotional, and moral dimensions of students’ lives, but their contribution to the life of the college should also be measured by the degree to which they create extracurricular spaces in which the academic virtues of debate, clear thinking, the art of argument, and intellectual diversity are cultivated.  This might mean that it is necessary for faculty to live in the dorms.  There is a reason some of the best institutions of higher education have residential colleges with faculty masters.  (Wellmon’s entire piece is framed around his work as the resident principal of UVA’s Brown College). Academic virtues are best taught by academics.  Sadly, I am unaware of any Christian colleges that have such a system.

Allow me to restate Wellmon’s argument: The secular academy provides the kind of academic virtues that allow graduates to make thoughtful contributions to society, but it is unable to provide moral clarity on the most pressing issues of the day.

Christian colleges, it seems to me, are in a unique position to offer students both training in the the academic virtues and a sense of moral clarity.  But without cultivating the former, the the latter will be little more than shallow sermonizing.

3 thoughts on “Moral Clarity and Academic Virtues at Christian Colleges

  1. Along with all the moral clarity comes a heavy dose of self-righteous lecturing and enough hypocrisy to float a nuclear aircraft carrier or a Celebrity Cruise ship


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