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Are Teachers Moral Mentors, or Should We Stick To the Facts?

Hello, readers! I have been MIA for a couple of weeks, but please know that I missed you bunches. Among the many distractions that kept me from your virtual sides was my first half marathon, which allowed me some quality contemplative time. (See photo, in which I am thinking HARD.) One item I chewed over: This recent NYT article from Salman Rushdie about moral courage.

Rushdie decries the privileging of physical courage over moral courage, about which he is probably correct, and provides examples of moral courage construed as mere troublemaking, about which I fear he is also correct. He does not discuss the role of education per se in this context, but at the end of the piece he writes:

It’s a vexing time for those of us who believe in the right of artists, intellectuals and ordinary, affronted citizens to push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world.

As a professional educator, I am also a professional intellectual; as a humanities educator, I am also a morals educator. How could I avoid such? This does not mean that I require my students to reach preassigned moral conclusions (as if that’s even possible) but through reading literature from diverse time periods and places, we inevitably investigate moral claims and perspectives, challenging students to consider their own definitions of morality and virtue and ethics in new ways.

This level of “moral education,” a sort of side effect or incidental result of any study of humanity, does not make most people so uncomfortable, as it does not, in and of itself, necessitate that the instructor present an answer to the moral questions raised by the material. And as long as we fashion ourselves as neutral, bloodless ciphers with no moral agenda, we dodge the often hysterical criticisms leveled at “activist professors” like Chomsky. HOWEVER. In my experience, a moral agenda is unavoidable. Further, I have, after years of internal conflict, mostly come to terms with the fact that, as an educator, I am a moral agent–an active moral agent, not merely a passive one. For me, Rushdie’s call for moral courage asks us to embrace this role as moral educators instead of eschewing it out of fear.

We can do this. We can encourage young people to adopt moral positions. Indeed, we can’t avoid doing it. When I assign “The Lottery,” I do so because I want students to learn something about the dangers of accepting handed down tradition as unimpeachable truth. From that story, they can learn about the moral problem of allowing individuals to suffer because of tradition, of burying personal guilt under communal guilt, and of suppressing new ideas through majority rule. If I ask students studying Jackson’s story to explain why they are affronted by the actions of the characters, eventually we get to a claim that the individual life of a citizen should be valued above the community’s need to invoke the perceived magic of blood sacrifice. Thus they derive a moral imperative–and I push them to it.

My point is: Instead of scrabbling about trying to appease (mostly conservative fundamentalist) parents by denying any “liberal agenda,” the profession and the students would be better served by openly explaining what our moral agenda is. I do have a liberal agenda, if by “liberal” “agenda” you mean that I want my students to see themselves as individual thinkers who are empowered by critical thinking and morally responsible to the world. My first day speech: “You chose a university–a ‘universal’–education instead of a job training program for a reason. You will be challenged here, and you will be made uncomfortable. You may alter, even abandon, some of the beliefs and ideas you arrived with; or, you may leave with the same ones. Either way, if you do this right, you should leave better equipped to honestly evaluate your beliefs and to articulate the reasoning behind them, both to yourself and to others.”

To me, this attitude is a crucial part of moral courage; it’s a moral imperative all its own. I’m not shy about that anymore, and I don’t think you should be either.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

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