The Forum | General Education

Chad Wellmon: How Moral Education Left the Classroom

January 28, 2019

Chad Wellmon is a professor of German Studies at University of Virginia. He is an expert on the differences between German and American academia, as well as the rise of the research university in the nineteenth century. He joined ACTA to discuss the competing duties of higher education, and how they have changed over time. 

Q: You wrote an article titled “How Colleges Ceded Their Authority: Education and moral purpose have parted ways.” What issues were you responding to and what is your message?

A: I was responding most immediately to a talk that Jonathan Haidt gave on how universities had chosen social justice over the pursuit of truth. More broadly, I was responding to the concerns over the past two or three years that higher education institutions, especially elite colleges and universities, have been overtaken by what Haidt and a lot of others would call “social justice warriors.” And, at the very least, I wanted to say that it’s a lot more complicated than that. My first point was that universities have always pursued multiple, often times competing, purposes. They’re deeply social institutions. Historically, going back at least to the 13th century Paris or Oxford, and going all the way up to today, universities across time and space have trained clergy, they’ve trained bureaucrats or civil servants, and they’ve focused on supporting mercantilism in the 18th century. It was not until the 19th century that you had some of the more familiar kinds of ends, like the production of knowledge with research and science. The real innovation in the American context is this close relationship with democracy—forming democratic citizens. How this is accomplished has always varied between institutions. It’s incorrect to say that universities have only had one function. I don’t think that Haidt was being that simplistic, but we need to understand how many different purposes universities have had over time. And by purpose, I don’t simply mean activities, I mean the orienting ideals, which are often times in conflict.

Q: Your article stated that the Morrill Act in 1862 “declared the creation and transmission of knowledge a democratic and social project.” Can you talk more about that mission and whether or not we have stayed true to it?

A: I think in many ways universities have, almost despite themselves. Most universities continue to understand themselves as relating to and serving a broader public, well beyond the campus grounds. But there has been a slow withdrawal of federal and especially state support for these institutions. The Morrill Act didn’t just found the A&M institutions, it founded Cornell, and it remade Harvard and Yale. We haven’t really had anything akin to that, except for maybe post-World War II federal research funding, but that was quite focused. The Morrill Act included liberal education for the broader public in its mission. We haven’t really had the state commitment to that since. One trend we’ve seen is the privatization of those goods. Universities have been unable to articulate their goods as public goods. The talk often goes that education only benefits the individual, therefore that individual should pay for their education. In contrast, the Morrill Act claimed that education and knowledge are goods that we share as a republic. Before the Morrill Act, no universities had such a democratic purpose.

Q: You’re an expert on how American education differs from the German education model. Can you explain the two models, and what is so unique about the American approach?

A: I think it really is that democratic mission. German universities were erected around 1800. They reinvented themselves over the course of the 19th century, and they gave us the model of the research university. The research university is broadly dedicated to the production and transmission of knowledge. In Germany, it was very wrapped up with the state, but it wasn’t a democratic state. The state very much had control over what universities did, and it was very much a university system. In the United States, universities in large part emerged from sectarian schools and some redefined themselves as research universities, but from the outset they had this very democratic mission. Chicago around 1900 was talking about the university as the prophet or philosopher of democracy. The Wisconsin Idea was formulated. All of these things go far beyond universities supplying the state with ideas and technology. They’re really bound up with this idea of the people, which is so central to America’s understanding.

Q: Speaking of the Wisconsin Idea: I read that the Wisconsin University System toyed with the idea of changing its mission from “search for truth” to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” How do you think this exemplifies the shifting nature of American academia?

A: There’s always been tension between job training and something broader, something like a broader liberal pursuit of knowledge. But the scales have tipped more recently towards job training. I would argue that it’s profoundly short-sighted. You end up doing skills training, and skills are very soon out of date. The types of knowledge that universities pursue . . . some of my colleagues in the humanities call it “useless knowledge.” But I think that’s wrong. It’s very useful . . . it’s just liberal. It has no immediate end in the sense that you can’t identify the little widget that it’s going to produce tomorrow. The knowledge that universities produce is useful for democracy or literacy or rhetoric. I see universities as being an intermediary between the utilitarian need for skills and the ideal of a purist pursuit of knowledge.

Q: “By the mid-20th century, the dominance of the Anglo-Protestant monopoly had largely eroded, and with it the ability of elite colleges to form character and robust social bonds on the basis of a homogenous culture they had long taken for granted.” Can you comment further on the relationship between moral education and increased diversity in higher education?

A: We’re confronted with different opportunities and different kinds of moral education. Historically, American colleges could have these coherent curricula because they were radically homogenous institutions. They were East Coast, elite, protestant, white, male institutions. So the ideas of coherence in the curriculum and coherence in moral education were bound up with a very particular culture. The assumptions that fueled that education relied on homogeneity. As universities opened up, the correspondence between coherent moral education and homogenous culture could no longer be as easily assumed. I see so many of the battles in higher education over the course of the 20th century as trying to come to terms with this new pluralism. And now, what we’re seeing is that it’s no longer simply the 18 to 22 year olds. The age ranges of students differ so broadly and bring new questions: “Is there anything that binds these students? Is there any kind of curriculum that will be meaningful for everyone?”

Q: What is the effect of morality and education becoming separated in the manner that it has?

A: One of the effects that the dissolution of the fixed curricula of the 19th century had was a separation of questions of truth and questions of moral formation, of “is” and “ought.” This also had to do with the rise of the research university and the secondary place that undergraduate education began to take as graduate programs became more robust. Starting in the 1930’s and 1940’s, universities started to try to beef up their undergraduate experience. They tried to bring back some type of cultural coherence. We now call this the extracurricular life of colleges and universities. This is when they first built football stadiums, counseling centers, and career centers. These things only really took off as a coherent institutional domain separate and apart from the curriculum in the mid-20th century. You now have your curriculum, your faculty teaching classes, and then you have your students who spend the huge majority of their time in this extracurricular space. Students are involved in this space, obviously, but it’s also overseen by an incredibly large and complex system of professionals. They do the work, but they do the work completely separate from the classroom. So you have this really sharp divide between, let’s say, the mind and life. At least in terms of moral education, that’s the most salient transformation over the course of the 20th century. Moral education did not disappear from universities, it just got put in a completely different domain.

Q: In “The University Run Amok! Higher education’s insatiable appetite for doing more will be its undoing,” you talk about the burgeoning functions of universities. Can you elaborate on your views?

A: The University, almost tangentially or after the fact, educates students and produces knowledge because it does so many other things. The University of Virginia (UVA) has an entire entertainment complex, it has an entire sports franchise, it hosts giant concerts, it has a sustainability division, it has something like twenty different foundations, and it has the health centers. I think Johns Hopkins might be the biggest employer in Baltimore. It has what some might call ancillary functions, but they are massive, so you can’t really talk about the University as a community. You have to talk about it as an international enterprise. That’s a very different type of institution.

Q: You make an interesting point in the article that universities are one of the last public institutions left and have to fill in all these other gaps that we have in society.

A: One of my biggest fears is precisely that. As our other public institutions collapse, universities have increasingly stepped into more roles. Individually, you don’t want to say no to any of those roles. You don’t want to say “No, UVA shouldn’t be supplying child care to its faculty and staff.” That’s a good thing, but UVA does it because there is no public infrastructure to sustain anything like it. Or UVA’s transportation system goes all through Charlottesville because Charlottesville has an awful transportation system.

Q: How much do you worry about the proliferation of student services? You mentioned lazy rivers in your article.

A: I’m never going to support a lazy river. But what most colleges are trying to do when they make those decisions is attract students because they’ve lost funding or support. They’re competing. They’re conducting themselves in the culture that universities have found themselves, which is a culture that has almost no capacity to comprehend any values other than economic utility. Universities have been transformed by that moral failure, so they think that they are simply attracting customers. It’s a failure by the university to build things like a lazy river, but it’s a reflection of the broader culture where we don’t know how to talk about values other than economic utility and have disinvested from the idea of education as a commonly held good.    


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