Letter to the editor: CWRU needs to emphasize moral education

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics & Associate Professor of Philosophy

The event convened by President Barbara Snyder on Tuesday, Nov. 27 to discuss Nazism and white supremacy’s traces on campus was helpful, especially Director of the LGBT Center Liz Roccoforte’s suggestion for developing a ready task force to address hate slurs on campus.

One thing was missing, though: the importance of moral learning in our university. Certainly, moral values were implicit everywhere, but moral learning was never explicit.

Diversity is oriented by moral perception and values. Without these values, diversity loses its way and can even be problematic. Some people become radicalized and reactive when they encounter diversity, a phenomenon that is underneath the stories of many fundamentalists.

And if the global diversity requirement for the College of Arts and Sciences would allow a course on French wine tasting to count as much toward diversity as a course on the history of apartheid, one can see what happens when diversity is not guided by social justice. Diversity needs to be joined with moral equality and that with moral perception to do its work.

The absence of moral perception was sometimes on display Tuesday night. A student who wants to beat up the person who offended them has lost moral perception. Someone who conflates criticism of a state and its use of force with hate crimes against people has also lost moral perception. The very presence of Nazi ideology begins under this larger problem of suppressing moral perception in the abstract delusion of a political movement.

It all points toward a need for moral learning on this campus and more explicit attention to the moral perception of people and of everything else morally considerable, such as other forms of life. Yet not only are this language and its concepts not forefronted in events like Tuesday’s, but Case Western Reserve University’s faculty provides very little curricular and programmatic emphasis on them.

The autobiographies and in-depth reports I’ve read of former American Nazis are quite clear. The converts became what they were because they had massive voids inside them and lacked moral perception. These two were linked. The voids were a result of the way their upbringing had left them feeling that they had no moral value, that they did not deserve care, concern and respect. So they repaid the world in kind.

At CWRU, we contribute to some aspects of this void. We are career-focused and technical but not equally focused on learning how to be human beings with good judgment. And we frequently—whether according to students, staff or faculty—are struck by the “coldness” or lack of care in this place.

We all contribute to the void in each other in our own way. We do not create Nazis, but we quite often produce alienated students, staff and faculty. A big part of the problem here is unclarity and lack of follow-through on creating an environment where moral attention and perception are genuinely put among the most important things we learn and where they are emphasized and thus explicitly valued.

So I have two suggestions, both on the depth side.

First, I propose we consider a common reading of one of the biographies of a recovered neo-Nazi. Help incoming students learn about why someone becomes a Nazi and how important a genuinely moral environment is to bringing someone back from the void.

My second proposition is that we advocate for the faculty to remember the importance of moral learning. We are constantly at risk of letting this core area of our mission drop. The Commission on the Undergraduate Experience report had no ethicist on it. The new universal general education requirement proposal makes no mention of moral learning, even though it aims to produce productive members of society, and it has seemingly abandoned the one feature of Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) that contributed to moral development: learning goals in moral reflection that refined along the four courses of SAGES in what is called “spiral learning.”

It is this spiral learning that the nursing school does and which explains in large part why its students graduate with a strong moral sensibility, whereas the rest of our undergraduates plateau and even decline in moral judgment, graduating without a civic sense, without a sense of social justice and without a sense of the important human goods of life beyond one’s immediate career. We need to improve our moral education throughout the entire school, but currently are continuing to sideline it.

In this divided America, slogans won’t work. We need to help people see each other as people, and this does not begin with abstractions; it begins by coming close up to people and perceiving their humanity. This is a moral art. The response I hope we can show to the events on campus is not so much a reassertion of identity, as was claimed often Tuesday night, but concrete acts of moral perception by which we try to see people in their complexity with care.

Emphasizing that in campus practices would be the place to start. It would reassert respect concretely and help all people feel safe.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics & Associate Professor of Philosophy

CORRECTION, Nov. 30, 8:50 p.m.: The Observer originally printed Professor Bendik-Keymer’s letter with edited course examples in the fourth paragraph. The two fictional courses originally used by the letter writer have been restored to this article. The Observer, who reserves the right to edit letters to the editor for grammar and clarity, apologizes for the error in judgement and aggressive editing.