Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Do we provide students a morally serious education?

A couple of thoughts on the eve of Veteran's Day, wrapped around a question on the moral seriousness of education.

My father-in-law, Klem Schneider, grew up poor in rural Idaho. He knew by the time he was 16 that he wanted out of Lewisville. He saved money from working in potato fields to go to college at Utah State University. At first he wanted to be an engineer, then a doctor. He and my mother-in-law, Linda, married while they were in college. Then my wife, Kristine was born. Klem decided that to become a doctor with a small family would cost nearly everything. He enlisted in the Army, which paid for his medical school and then sent him to Vietnam. He spent a year there, doing public health and general practice. He sent line drawings of water buffalo home to his kids.

He was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and as a result got cancer--Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma--for the first time while Kristine was a senior in high school. After two more bouts of cancer and chemo, he died at the age of 61, 7 years ago. I took his oral history while he was in remission. He was a serious man, and he made a morally serious decision about education while still young--that he would get enough education to ensure his family was never poor. If that meant signing on for a tour of duty in Vietnam in order to go to medical school, so be it. He never regretted his military service, not because he was particularly patriotic, but because it got him the education he wanted, needed.

C.S. Lewis fought in the first world war. On the cusp of the second he preached a sermon at Oxford on the topic "Learning in Wartime." This was his question--

As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to
start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called
clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or
historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to
do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task
which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we
ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or
military service, why should we -- indeed how can we --
continue to take an interest in these placid occupations
when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are
in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Lewis' answer was to put war into context. He told his listeners,

The war creates no absolutely
new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human
situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has
always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture
has always had to exist under the shadow of something
infinitely more important than itself.

The United States have been involved in big wars for 19 of my 44 years, and in little wars (Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada) for a chunk of the rest. More than half of my academic career has been during wartime. I wonder by what acts of denial I (by which I mean most of formal education) have managed to ignore the aggravation of the permanent human situation caused by these wars.

Last year I had 3 young veterans in my history class. One had recently been deployed in Iraq. They were no better students than the rest of the class. They shared the weekend binges and late semester declines with the rest of their classmates. But on big issues--the role of government, the purpose of authority in society, freedom, justice, race, and war--they spoke with conviction and complexity--that their classmates could not match.

Pointing to the weaknesses of higher education is a common practice today. It costs too much, it isn't accountable, students don't always learn, etc. etc. Let me add one to the list, on the day before Veteran's Day. Many students, most perhaps, don't get a morally serious education. Or to use the language of the previous post, they get very little to help them choose to pay the price of experience. Perhaps this is OK--a degree and a vocation and some personal growth are good things. I wonder if it is enough.

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