Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Culture, Not Morality?

An article in yesterday’s Inside Higher Education discusses a new book by a Notre Dame anthropologist that explores the reasons for widespread plagiarism among today’s college students. In particular, its author recommends a departure from the prevailing system of detection and punishment. The article makes a number of implicit claims that deserve further reflection: in fact, it is an extraordinary sign of the times that goes far beyond the apparent issue of plagiarism.

What caught my attention was the article’s title: “It’s the Culture, not Morality.” What the anthropologist – Susan Blum – argues is that there are deeper cultural reasons that large numbers of students cheat that are separable from moral considerations. This implicit point is repeated in the article when the author writes: “Those who want to understand the ideas in the book may want to note the title; it’s no coincidence that Blum wrote about college ‘culture,’ and not ‘ethics’ or ‘morality.’”

This is an extraordinary claim that it seems only possible to make in the context of the particular “culture” reigning on today’s campuses. The study and teaching of Ethics is now a distinct domain of a particular subfield of philosophy (or, a distillation of this field that is then given various “applied” forms, e.g., “Business Ethics.”). Alternatively, the study and teaching about Culture falls largely to Departments of Anthropology and Sociology, the former which in particular is governed by the reigning disciplinary assumptions of Cultural Relativism. Morality – the effort to discover the Right – is wholly separable from culture - a governing particular worldview that happens to exist and can’t be subjected to questions of Right or Wrong. The counsel of Professor Blum – to understand, and thus adjust to the culture of our students (thus giving greater allowance to widespread unattributed use of published materials) – draws from her disciplinary assumptions.

Drawn largely from the overwhelming influence of Kant, Ethics is a largely seen as a domain of decision-making, the weighing of various considerations that go into making a decision about particular cases (should a person be permitted to buy a kidney? Is it right to sacrifice 10 people to save 100? Under what circumstances is it proper to lie? Etc., etc.). Ethics is largely shorn of any cultural considerations whatsoever, but rather exists in the realm of the mind – deliberation shorn of context. Under the reigning assumptions of anthropology, culture exists outside the realm of deliberation: culture exists and one brings to bear imperialistic or authoritarian or extra-cultural considerations if one attempts to critique or raise questions about some forms of cultural practice. In our division of academic disciplines, it’s obvious that one is either speaking of “culture” or “ethics,” but that the two are separate and distinct.

Yet, properly understood, culture is the locus of ethics and morality. Culture exists in significant part to transmit to new generations various norms and standards that become part of the background assumptions of each new generation. Properly understood, culture is morality – it is its necessary precondition, the means of moral conveyance and transmission. Morality is approached not as a course requirement in the core curriculum, but as part of the deepest fabric of everyday lived life (incidentally, every student I know regards these courses as an absurd and burdensome requirement, while every administrator I know is self-congratulatory about the existence of these programs. The same goes for the various required “online” courses on alcohol consumption, sex and harassment codes, multicultural respect, and so on. As part of the condition of my employment, I was recently required to take such an online course on harassment. What it sought to teach in a 15-minute, idiotic and risible multiple choice format was that you should have good manners. If an adult taking this “seminar” needs its lessons, it is far too late to be of any use). A properly constituted culture is a moral “system,” albeit not systematized or reliant upon constant conscious deliberation or rational deduction. Indeed, a “culture” that regards “ethics” as separable or separate from culture is a broken culture, just as a “culture” that increasingly resorts to law enforcement or official deterrence reflects the loss of culture to govern behavior at the level of habituation and largely unconscious self-governance.

The particular "culture" to which teachers and educators need to understand and accomodate themselves to is the all-too-familiar "culture" fostered and supported not only by the contemporary academy, but a "culture" that teaches immorality as a way of life. As reported by the article's author (based upon interviews with students at Notre Dame - a Catholic university), students are driven to cheat by expectations fostered by the dominant "culture":

"In terms of explaining student culture, Blum uses many of the student interviews to show how education has become to many students more an issue of credentialing and getting ahead than of any more idealistic love of learning. She quotes one student who admits that he sounds 'awful,' in describing decidedly unintellectual reasons for going to college and excelling there. 'I think that knowledge is important to me, and to feel like I’m ahead of the game in a sense is important to me. And to move on the next step, whatever it is .. is also important.' Students looking for the 'next step; may not care as much as they should about actual learning, Blum suggests."

That "next step" for a large number of students who regularly cheated to "get ahead" was doubtless those many firms on Wall Street (and their various cosmopolitan counterparts) where those who could cut corners received many of the greatest rewards. We should not see this student "culture" as separate or separable from the "culture" that has led to our current economic and deeper moral crisis: the mentality that encouraged widespread cheating as a means of achieving success at "the next step" was a deeply ingrained feature of the modern American psyche of success, not some temporary period of student hijinks that elders can nod at with knowing acquiescence. Indeed, our elders are deeply implicated in this "culture": while we officially disapprove of plagiarism, the deeper lesson we have taught our young is that the goal and aim of life is SUCCESS defined by your status and wealth, not your character. The shenanigans of our "elites" or "leaders" - Geithner, Daschle, et. al., is only a continuation of the widespread behavior of our class of elite students. In the meantime, we eschew the language of "character" for the language of "ethics," above all because character is a quality of person and soul that is embedded in a culture, while ethics is a detachable set of rationalizations that say very little about the sort of person that we are or the condition of our soul. Our students know that they succeed only if they have achieved great success in the terms that our contemporary society defines such success. Success is the job they land in cities like New York or London, not whether they are able to become upstanding and decent citizens of localities that stand or fall on the contributions of their civic leaders. That is the reality and central lesson of our culture, not our self-deceived efforts to inculcate "ethics" through 15-minute online seminars. Meanwhile, our clumsy efforts to catch those who take shortcuts is an encouragement not to any deeper lesson of character, but an encouragement to more clever forms of avoiding detection.

I agree with Professor Blum that understanding and attending to culture is vital, but I wholly reject the idea that one needs to capitulate to a culture which can be conceptually separated from ethics and morality. To repair or foster a culture or ethic of responsible adulthood is the great challenge of our time, and one that our adults - parents, educators, clergy, and so on - are ill-equipped to help inculcate, at the deepest level because of a failure of culture itself, or better put, the rise of a deeply malformed and deforming "culture" that has undermined what culture is and ought to be. We must indeed begin the long, slow, and difficult process of repair, and our time of crisis provides a very salutary moment for that process to begin. Still, we must see clearly the obstacles that lie before us, beginning with our own complicity in the ills we might otherwise decry and seek to blame on this or that malevolent actor. The repair of culture will begin with the effort to achieve a proper ordering of our own souls, and from there an encouragement of a proper ordering - and a genuine education - of the next generation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm...Culture as transmitting norms and standards? Culture as constitutive of morality? Do I detect Philip Rieff lurking about?

Great post. With our Republican Congressional leaders reflexively beating the tired drum of tax cuts and our Democratic Congressional leaders exploiting the public sentiment in favor of government spending to hurl money at any ill-conceived social program they can think of, neither side willing to responsibly attack the problem without calculating its own political advantage, I fear you are correct that our current leaders dwell within a "culture" that is in adequate to the task. They have been rendered incapable of either fully appreciating the severity of the problems we face or addressing them in any meaningful way.

Steven Pearlstein has a good column in today's WaPo related to this subject...