We live in a time when ethics has become big business: medical schools hire medical ethicists, business schools hire business ethicists. Congress has an ethics committee, and schools and universities are supposed to teach values. As a theologian trained in ethics, I suppose I should be happy about this development. Suddenly, people think that there are experts in ethics who can make right all that has gone wrong in our public life. As far as I am concerned, however, the hiring of ethicists in medical schools and business schools to lecture to students about what it means to be ethical or to teach values is to try to cure the illness with but another form of the disease.
Let me elaborate. I object to the term “value.” In our culture, values denote personal preferences in contrast to “objective” facts. But as Alasdair MacIntyre has reminded us in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, are seventeenth-century inventions, and I think it is time to leave these inventions behind. As I do not believe in facts, so I do not believe in their contrast, values. Nor should universities be concerned about either.
This leaves me in a bit of a quandary, since the subject I want to address is what it might mean for a university to be Christian. If I engaged in a jeremiad about the sad condition of the modern university, that jeremiad would include most Christian universities. I have elsewhere attacked the current notion that colleges and universities should be about the Socratic function of allowing students to make up their own minds. This assumption is celebrated in the movie The Dead Poets Society, whose protagonist is a teacher who intends above all to help students make up their own minds. My own view, however, is that the concept of education he represents is completely corrupt, because most students do not have minds worth making up.
I realize that I have just insulted students everywhere, but it is important that I confront your self-perceptions. I cannot think of anything that invites you to be more in the conformist mode of the American proposition than for you to believe that you should make up your own minds. That attitude defeats rather than sustains education. It undercuts the formation of people of virtue capable of withstanding the confrontation with truth. Making up one’s mind has nothing to do with being educated.
Most colleges today approach their curriculum as though it were a market for an elite group of consumers—their students. Students come to the university to consume ideas, and the teachers present various alternatives in class. If asked, “Which one do you think is true?” the teachers say, “That is not my task. I’m just trying to help you understand what the options are so that you can make up your own mind.” If the assumption that students are fundamentally consumers who can make up their own minds is not challenged, students so educated will never be able to stand up against capitalist manipulation. Capitalist interests are served when students believe that they are free consumers who get to choose between a Sony or a Panasonic radio. It never occurs to them that this choice is imposed. They are taught to call such choices “freedom.”
The assumption that we should train students to make up their own minds is deeply rooted in modernity’s understanding of morality—that is, that ethics has to do with decisions. Therefore, most ethics courses today are shaped around such questions as, “What would you do in these circumstances?” These decisions are supposed to be made by that most fictitious entity of modernity, the individual. Such a view of morality is fundamentally at odds with those (like me) who believe that moral life is about the formation of virtuous people by tradition-formed communities. Perhaps this is what a Christian university is or could be about.
To elicit this sense of morality that might make a Christian university different from its secular counterparts, I want to address one of the essential practices that makes a university morally coherent: I want to discuss honor and honor codes and why honor is intrinsic to the university. I am going to make six contentious claims that I believe to be true. I also believe that insofar as a university embodies these truths in its life, we can hope that moral discourse is possible there—even if it is a university that teaches students to make up their own minds.
My six contentions are these:
1. Cheating is a more serious crime than murder for those engaged in the activities of learning and teaching.
2. There is honor among thieves, but that does not mean that honor is a bad idea.
3. The fact that we have an honor code or the fact that we should have an honor code does not mean that we have a corrupt community or institution.
4. If you do not cheat, that is, if you do not use someone else’s work on a test and do not use material in a paper without due acknowledgment, that does not mean you are a person of honor—but it is not a bad place to start.
5. The most compassionate thing that you can do as a Christian is to turn someone in for cheating.
6. If you think that you can cheat while you are in school because this is just preparation for the real world, you will never be prepared for the real world because it doesn’t get any more real than this.
Those are my six contentions. Now I want to explain each one.
1. Cheating is a more serious crime than murder for those engaged in the activities of learning and teaching.
Note that I did not say “for colleges, universities, or schools,” all of which may or may not have to do with learning and teaching. Learning and teaching certainly require institutional support, but they are activities that may be more or less supported or corrupted by their institutional embodiments. Learning and teaching are activities that any good community requires, and while they often take place in schools and universities, they also occur in construction trades and farms. Alasdair MacIntyre has defined such practices as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to and partially definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence in human conception of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended.” Though this account may not provide for the appropriate sense of purpose as part of a practice, it nonetheless nicely suggests how we became more than we are by being part of such practices.
Teaching is a practice and learning is a practice because we believe that we have something worth passing on from one generation to another. Such passing on may be something as basic as one bricklayer teaching another bricklayer how to hold a trowel in order to spread mortar, or one person taking another through Plato’s Meno to understand whether virtue can be taught. Inherent in these practices is learning how to pass on shared judgments, how to give back what we have learned and so indicate that we have got it. Therefore, initiation into the knowledge of the past presumes willingness to be exposed to judgment in order to know whether one has it right or wrong.
To be initiated into a craft, an apprentice must learn from the teacher, and then from continuing self-education, how to identify mistakes in applying the standards recognized to be the best available in the practice of that craft. Learning a craft is tricky; apprentices must learn to distinguish what in particular situations is really good to do from what only seems good to do. I am thinking of things like learning to pot. It may well be that some of the most important courses one can teach at a university are pottery and auto mechanics.
You could correctly surmise that I am not an advocate of liberal arts education as something intrinsic to Christian universities. Indeed, I do not like the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge. All knowledge that is interesting is practical and draws upon a deep community interest. So the craft analogy is meant in a straightforward manner. By thinking of education as a form of craft, moreover, we can better appreciate the role of the teacher.
As Professor MacIntyre has suggested in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, to learn how to pot an apprentice must learn to distinguish between two kinds of excellence: that which the apprentice and others can expect of himself or herself here and now, and that which furnishes both apprentice and master craftsman with the final end of the craft itself. Clearly, then, the only way one learns a craft is through apprenticeship to a master. This claim is crucial. You cannot learn to lay brick; you can be taught how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to hold a brick. But the only way you ever learn to lay brick is by working with a master bricklayer, day in and day out, learning all the nuances of the craft.
If the bricklaying analogy is unfamiliar to you, think about craft in terms of learning to play a musical instrument. To learn how to play a musical instrument, you must be initiated into the art by a master. Part of being initiated is learning to trust the master’s judgments, and you find out that judgments are not things that can be learned by rote.
To achieve the purpose of the craft, then, apprentices learn that they must be transformed. They do not try to transform their interest; they just learn day in and day out that, for example, to form a pot it is important to use this clay rather than that clay. Distinguishing between clays is extremely important. For me, a non-potter, clay is clay; but master potters learn to distinguish between clays with the kind of discriminating judgment they have earned through initiation into the craft. They have been changed by being taught how to appreciate different kinds of clays.
Notice that genuine education understood as becoming a skilled practitioner requires recognition of an authority who has earned our trust. Yet one of the most important developments in universities today has been the devaluation of what it means to sit under a master teacher. Instead, students sit under technocrats who have been given licenses through the Ph.D., and the question about what constitutes a master teacher has on the whole been ignored. Yet though ignored, the master-apprentice relationship may still be hanging on. We still give apprentices, whom we call students, a way to discover their appropriation of the craft by inviting them to demonstrate that they understand what has been taught. Some of the ways we ask you to discover for yourselves what you are engaged in are tests and assigned papers.
Universities, then, are institutions set aside for the passing on of the knowledge we call wisdom—about matters that matter. Because judgments must be learned through apprenticeship to masters—some dead, some living—we cannot and do not use others’ work without due acknowledgment, because to do so would betray our learning activity. We would not be acknowledging the masters who are necessary for us to do our work well if we failed to so acknowledge them. We are required to footnote, not because the others’ work is theirs, as if there were a capitalist relationship between oneself and one’s work. I know that if I have a “creative idea,” it just means I have forgotten where I read it. A creative idea is not property. Due acknowledgment of others’ work is a way of indicating who are the necessary members of the conversation I am participating in to acquire the same kinds of nuanced judgments that I find exhibited in their lives. It is not as if I think of my work as a property that I own; but it is crucial that I show from whom I have learned and in what ways I may disagree with them.
Cheating, then, is any form of life that makes the activity of learning and teaching impossible. For institutions set aside for teaching and learning, therefore, cheating is worse than murder because cheating strikes at the heart of the reason we are there. Although murder is a terrible crime, cheating is worse than murder at these institutions. I do not mean that it is alright to kill somebody at a university, but cheating is worse because murder does not challenge the very nature of the institution. Those of us in universities must remember that we are called to be there. It is a privilege to be at a university, to be a student engaged in the kind of activity I have suggested. It is a privilege to be set aside to do nothing but to read books, to become articulate, to learn to speak eloquently, to learn to appreciate a great painting. If you are so called and so set aside that means that you are seen as people gifted to face the rigors of living with the constant judgment that is part and parcel of being initiated into such activities.
In a world where people are starving, in a world where people are being killed every minute by the deepest injustice, how can you possibly justify taking time out in your life to do nothing but learn to read books well? I contend that this privilege comes from a community that believes that nothing is more important than to have a people who bear the rigors of seeing more truthfully the way the world is by exposing themselves to the otherness of the other which they meet through the ongoing business of learning a craft well. It takes a substantive community to believe that we can so set people aside.
People say to me, “Oh, you’re a teacher,” and I say “yes” and they say, “Well, how much do you teach?” and I say “six hours” and they say, “Wow, that’s quite a lot for a day,” and I say, “No, no, a week,” and they say, “You work six hours a week?” and I say, “Yes, I teach six hours a week, that’s how often I am in class,” and they say, “Man, I can’t believe that.” I have been set aside to do nothing with my life but try to understand the significance of the Trinity and its implications for the nature of the moral life. Can you imagine a community setting anyone aside to do that? Why would they set aside people who do nothing but try to understand that there is something crucial about understanding that God is three and that as a matter of fact this claim has tremendous significance for the way we live? People who have been so set aside to engage in that kind of activity would need virtues of humor, humility, and courage to engage in that process. In short, they need to be honorable. So concludes the defense of my first contentious proposition.
2. There is honor among thieves, but that does not mean that honor is a bad idea.
It is certainly true that to be honorable is not sufficient in itself. After all, the Nazi SS was constituted by honor. These extraordinary people would unquestioningly sacrifice their lives for what they thought was worthy. They could be trusted, moreover, to be exactly what they were: SS. What you saw was what you got. That is important since one of the essential characteristics of people of honor is that they are not different from what they say they are. Moreover, honor requires a correlation with institutions that give us patterns of life that are worthy. Universities, we believe, are such institutions insofar as they have been set aside to sustain the wisdom of a people.
Even as I say this, I want to be clear that I am not at all sure that the contemporary university is morally intelligible. It is by no means clear what moral community the university is serving or what its task should be. Christian universities ought to be challenging assumptions that to my mind are undermining education today, assumptions, for example, that people have rights and/or that life is about happiness. Both of these assumptions seem to me to be cultural sentimentalities that are destroying the kind of reflection that is required in the university. Students need to be told that it is not always good to like your life. If you are miserable, that is not a bad way to be. It is tough being young; it is an awful time of life as far as I am concerned now that I am out of it. I think that if you are unhappy you may have a lot of good reasons to be unhappy. Besides, who told you that you were supposed to be about happiness? It’s never easy to be happy, and most of the time you should not be.
Aristotle said that eudaemonia (happiness) is a complete virtue in a complete life. He taught that, if you felt happy when you were young, you were in a deep delusion. I think that is probably correct, because any happiness worth having is derived from being engaged in worthwhile activities (like the study of theology) that are so engaging that you forget to ask if you are happy. Education is not about supplying wants, but teaching new wants. Providing this kind of education requires the university to be supported by institutions that stand against our culture’s sentimentalities about happiness.
There is a peculiar notion today that what makes a university Christian is what goes on in the classroom. You require a few theology courses and, if you are a Catholic school, maybe a few philosophy courses. Or maybe you think that what makes a university Christian today is real concern about a student’s life outside of the classroom. Then what makes a Christian university Christian is its Student Life division. I contend that if you let that happen, you live in a corrupt university. If you think that Christianity is primarily about regulating student life and taking care of troubled students in a way that has nothing to do with the activity characteristic of the classroom, then, as a matter of fact, you have lost the day and you have no rationale for a Student Life office to begin with.
On the contrary, what makes a Christian university Christian are personnel decisions about the kind of people who teach there. When someone is being considered for employment, deans need to be concerned about the kind of person they are hiring. It is not enough that they are good in their discipline. How and what they teach makes all the difference.
These are complex matters, to be sure, and it is easy to be misunderstood. But at stake are fundamental epistemological issues concerning the very nature of the university. As MacIntyre argues in the concluding chapter of Three Rival Versions of Morality, when universities gave up religious tests, the consequence was not that universities then became places of ordered conflict among rival traditions. Rather, when the appointment of university faculty excluded belief from consideration, a different but equally exclusive conception of scholarly competence was enforced in making appointments, a conception of competence independent of standpoint. A corresponding conception of objectivity in the classroom required professors to present what they taught as if shared standards of rationality were accepted by everyone. Universities, therefore, became institutions committed to upholding a fictitious objectivity.
In recent years, deconstructionists have come along to challenge the objectivist viewpoint. The natural response of those in the Enlightenment university is to dismiss these critics because they “are not objective.” They certainly are not. Deconstructionists are saying what we Christians should have been saying all along: there is no objective knowledge apart from the traditions that sustain it. In this instance, that institution is the church. Yet, of late, what has distinguished Christian universities is the claim that they are doing everything that other universities are doing—except they require courses in theology. Unfortunately, this approach cannot help but make God appear as the “God of the gaps.”
When Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was reforming English universities under the impetus of Enlightenment rationality, he found that universities depended upon constrained agreements; that is, before you could even enter the conversation, you had to locate yourself within the Christian tradition, even if in dissent. Sidgwick, as reported by MacIntyre, objected to such “constrained agreements” as antithetical to the scientific method and thus reason. Of course, his assumptions about science have proved to be wrong; we have subsequently learned that science depends upon such constrained agreements. I know of no physicist or astronomer who is all that interested in astrology. Yet there is no scientific reason in itself for excluding it. Nonetheless, Sidgwick excluded theology because theology depends upon constrained agreement. According to Sidgwick, the university can only make room for those disciplines, like science, that depend on unconstrained agreements. As a result, MacIntyre argues that no genuine disagreements ever get raised in the contemporary university. The university has become an institution where civility has become an end in itself.
In contrast, I would like the contemporary university to be a place where what MacIntyre calls “constrained disagreements” might occur. For it to be such a place, we would need, for example, to form students in the tradition of learning—and taking seriously—the different ways in which Jews and Christians understand the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament. Then you would really have a conflict. You would not just be learning about conflict; you would be in conflict.
As it now stands, we do not have arguments in the university. Yet I maintain that universities sponsored by the church have a stake in initiating the young into their tradition as well as into the conflict of traditions that we now know as modernity. That requires our institutions to initiate students into traditions that we think worthy. These traditions should be taken seriously because they deal with matters on which we hang our lives. In terms of my second claim, I think that universities, and in particular Christian universities, are those that insist that honor is an absolutely essential ingredient for the furtherance of what we care about in initiating youth into those traditions which we believe embody honor itself.
3. The fact that we have an honor code, or should have an honor code, at a university does not mean that we are a corrupt community or institution.
There is a widely prevalent view that honor is a good thing, but we should have no code of enforcement procedure. Those who cheat, according to this view, only cheat themselves; they do not hurt me. Most honor codes at universities fall apart on the assumption that, although I do not want to cheat, if I catch someone else cheating, I will not turn in that person because I do not want to be someone who rats on other people. I do not want to be a police officer.
This denial of the importance of honor codes and the corresponding enforcement implies a rather positive view of our character; namely, that most people are going to do the right thing given the opportunity. However, as Christians, we should realize that, if most of us are given an opportunity, we will certainly do wrong and, even more, we must learn to call that sin. That is the reason we need other people to help keep us honest. We need one another to be good, and that is what we signal to one another through an honor code.
But sins, I will admit, can become an excuse for terrible forms of coercion, and strictures against sin often tend to blot out the goods that the strictures hope to serve. Not cheating on an exam can become so important that we forget that the negative prohibition draws on the deeper commitment to honor in the first place.
Honor codes are necessary. Good communities and institutions need to find ways to remind themselves of what they are about as well as to give initiates a sense of those forms of life that make the community what it is. Codes, to be sure, can become simply law if they are divorced from the practices that give them moral intelligibility. But we must not underestimate the importance of such codes for articulating those practices that we think are crucial to the life of the university. Restraint is one way the community has of embodying its good.
4. If students do not cheat, if they do not use someone else’s material on a test, or do not use material in a paper without due acknowledgment, it does not necessarily follow that they are persons of honor—but it is not a bad place to start.
A person of honor can be trusted to stay true to convictions even when those convictions do not pay. Honor implies an elitist ethic, which should not surprise us, since universities are elitist institutions. Students have been called to an activity to which not all are called, and because of that they are held to a standard and hold themselves to a standard to which not all are held. Honor is not just a restraint. The university honors those who exemplify what we are about.
For example, at Duke University, we have a professor who has spent his whole adult life doing nothing but study lemurs. Lemurs are small primates found on the island of Madagascar. They are slowly being decimated by the destruction of the rain forests. This professor is honored throughout the entire university because he has given his life to understanding and saving lemurs. You might say, “When children are starving in Ethiopia, how can you set aside someone to study lemurs? What are the moral presuppositions which allow you to do that?” We do this because lemurs are worth saving. Of course, starving children in Ethiopia ought to be fed; but what universities are about, given our commitments, includes the study of lemurs. We also set aside people who do nothing but patiently study the christological debates of the fourth century. Others try to understand the condition of women. Challenges to our past modes of understanding are honored by the university. Moral virtues are required for the willingness to stand before what we do not know—before a lemur, before christology, before the marginalization of women—without becoming satisfied with easy solutions.
It is worthwhile to consider the relationship between the virtues required for what we do at the university and the rest of our moral life. Can one be a scholar without being a good person? We have tried on the whole to avoid that question in the modern university. We have allowed university teaching to become a profession and the university professors to become professionals, by which it is understood that they can deliver the goods without respect to the kinds of people they are. About the only thing for which anyone is fired today is coercive sexual harassment. You certainly cannot be fired for laziness. But university professors steal when they go into a classroom unprepared. That is not honorable behavior. It becomes absolutely crucial, therefore, for faculties to be able to police themselves in order to maintain universities as honorable institutions, where we can say to someone, “You may not abuse alcohol in a way that absolutely abrogates your ability to teach.”
Moreover, there can be no divorce of the classroom from the lives of students in the dormitories and the lives of the professors at their homes. The true test of a university is: are alumni reading a book a month forty-five years after they graduated from college? Do they feel the need to go back and read The Republic as business executives, doctors, and lawyers? If the university does not have that effect, it is not performing its task well. There can and should be no divorce between the classroom and the dorm. To be sure, not cheating on a test is a minimum, but it is a good minimum to remind us of what we are about as a community of learning in which members care for one another.
5. The most compassionate thing you can do as a Christian is to turn in someone for cheating.
As I noted, most honor systems founder on the statement, “I will not cheat myself, but I could not turn anyone else in if I caught them cheating. After all, they only hurt themselves.” The problem with this attitude is that it embodies the kind of individualism that is underwritten by a capitalist society: “I can do what I want to do so long as I don’t hurt anybody else and I play by the rules.” On the contrary, in institutions of honor, you owe it to those cheating to turn them in. For you must remember that you are not protecting yourself; you are reminding persons who cheat that they are betraying what they care about in terms of their being at that institution. Of course, the consequence is excommunication, but excommunication is the most gracious act the church ever performs. Without excommunication, how would you ever know that you are leading a life that cuts you off from the community of grace? We do exactly the same thing in the university when we turn one another in, report one another, and say thereby you need help. It reminds us what the university is about.
Still it will be said that we do not live in a world of honor. Obviously, the kinds of criticisms that I have made about the contemporary university and the contemporary church indicate severely compromised communities. How can we hold ourselves or anyone else to standards that it seems no one believes in? To that I say, “If you believe that, the game’s up.” We cannot afford not to be courageous in a world of cowards. But if you are courageous in a world of cowards, your life is going to be more dangerous. If you are truthful in a world of mendacious people, you had better expect to be in a fight. Even as we cannot afford not to be courageous in a world of cowards, we cannot afford not to be honorable in a world of dishonor. This brings me to my last claim.
6. If you think you can cheat at the university because this is just preparation for the real world, you will never be prepared for the real world.
It does not get any more real than this if you believe that these activities are as important as I have tried to suggest. I am not going to explain this point, because if it still needs explaining, then there is nothing more to be said.