Values to keep campuses honest
There has been an alarming rise in incidents of cheating, plagiarism, and other forms of academic dishonesty in American colleges and universities in recent years. Students have rationalized this behavior by referring to the pressures of a tight job market, tough graduate school admissions standards, and family expectations of achievement.
Because students view these pressures, standards, and expectations as compelling, actions which seem to serve them are deemed acceptable. As a result, we face a situation in which academic honesty is seen not as absolute but as relative. This situation perhaps should distress us more than it surprises us. For the extent to which intellectual activity is perceived to have no intrinsic worth, to the extent to which higher education is viewed simply as a path to some job, the values embedded in intellectual activity and academic inquiry will be ignored or denigrated. The issue is not that students do not understand the provisions of honor codes, but that they have not been led to appreciate higher education's fundamental demands for integrity and the allegiance to truth.
The problem, therefore, is not merely one of student deceit in response to ulterior motives or so-called academic pressure. It may have other sources, among them the failure of colleges and universities to insist on the integrity of intellectual endeavor and to welcome questions of values in the teaching and learning enterprise.
It is time for higher education to open itself to explorations of values, not to set out to prescribe values but at least to admit issues of values and ethics to a central place in the academic community.
This mode once permeated independent colleges and universities, either in the form of explicit religious convictions or of stated rules of conduct. I am not suggesting that we should recapture that mode. But I do think we need to examine the consequences of our present state in which we play down questions of personal commitment, avoid matters of morality and ethics, and ignore issues of values. As a result, we foster a timidity that diminishes education's aspirations to develop character and citizenship in students.
We often find that in university discourse the ultimate put-down, the true mark of erudition, is to look in the eye someone who has just commented on the worthiness or unworthiness of an idea and say, with just a hint of a sneer, ''That's just a value judgment.'' There is a classic illustration of treating values as simply personal preference, as merely matters of opinion.
Such thinking is a result of the tendency in higher education to treat matters of judgment, taste, and value as either irrelevant or ancillary. What we have created, therefore, is a situation in which judgment gives way to opinion, taste to preference, and value to feeling. When questions of values and human significance have no standing in the classroom or in academic inquiry, then we are telling students that such questions really don't matter, are apart from our central preoccupations, and are in fact matters of opinion, preference, and feeling.
Whether confronting hard ethical choices in public policy, or issues of personal identity in psychology, or questions about beauty in art or literature, or problems of environmental consequences in the sciences, we need to admit questions of values to the arena of discussion and debate. The moral arguments of a poem, the social implications of a political system, the ethical consequences of a scientific technique, and the human significance of our responses should have a place in classrooms and dormitory rooms. To deny that place is to relinquish any claim or attempt to link thought and action, knowing and doing.