Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Developing `character' again at American universities

By RUSHWORTH M. KIDDER / July 27, 1987



Cambridge, Mass.

Quietly, and with a thoughtfulness befitting his position as president of Harvard University, Derek Bok is on a crusade. His goal: to reawaken a commitment to ethical standards on American campuses. ``Moral development was a central responsibility of the American college in the last century,'' he says, relaxing on a crimson sofa during an interview in his ground-floor office here. But until recently, he notes, ``it has really just sort of dropped out of sight.''

Skip to next paragraph

Mr. Bok wants to bring it squarely back into view - and for that purpose, he's using the marvelous bully pulpit that Harvard provides. The issue was central to a speech he gave in Boston earlier this month. It may feature strongly in a major address at Duke University next spring and in his annual report to the Harvard trustees. And, he says, it will be the center of ``extensive'' efforts on his part over the next two or three years.

In one sense, it's not a new crusade. As society has faced a succession of knotty moral issues in recent decades - involving the civil rights movement, the abortion question, Watergate, and a host of technology-related concerns - ethics courses have proliferated on campuses.

Such courses, says Bok, ``teach people to be more aware of moral problems when they arise.'' But he notes that ``there's a great deal of difference between thinking reflectively about moral issues and achieving higher standards of ethical behavior.''

It's on exactly that point - the university's role in encouraging ethical behavior and building what used to be called ``character'' - that Bok is stepping out ahead of the pack.

``That's where it seems to me you find very, very little discussion at all in higher education,'' he says. A few authors, he notes, are writing about the development of character, ``but they're really at the margin of American higher education.''

``And that, perhaps, is the great peculiarity: that somehow the whole question of moral development, the development of character, is not thought to be a central aim of most universities.''

Why not? Bok points to a fear on the part of many educators that ``they're going to be thought to be moralizing, preaching, if they talk too much about it.'' The result, he notes, is that the tone of much of the literature concerning the ethical issues of campus life - such as drug use and plagiarism - is ``very formal.''

``It doesn't really talk about the reasons for rules,'' he notes. ``It talks about how they are defined technically, and what the penalties are, and so forth.''

``Now, maybe that has to do with the pluralism in our culture,'' he says. ``I think there are very broad cultural patterns that are resisting authority - that are resisting inhibitions on everyone living the way they want to live.''

``It's not just that religion is less important,'' he continues. ``It's the tremendous emphasis that's placed on success, results - which puts more pressure on a certain shaving of the rules in order to achieve success.''

So the issue for Bok is clear: ``Where do we develop willpower in an age where hedonism, ethical relativism, [and] freedom to choose one's life style have been breaking down the strength of will - all the old restraints and qualities of character that go back into Puritan times?''

Those qualities, he feels, are based on ``some very basic principles that have been held to be important by almost every human society of which we have any knowledge. One [principle] obviously has to do with refraining from acts of unjustified violence or aggression toward others. Another has to do with keeping one's word. Another has to do with telling the truth.''

What can the university do to promulgate such principles? Among other things, it can encourage more discussion of its own rules. On most campuses, Bok says, ``There is an unwillingness to address squarely the central issue of `Why do we have this rule? What principle of ethical behavior is it built on?'

``As a result, the rule becomes a sort of abstract, arbitrary, alien thing,'' he says. That's better than having no rules at all. But it ``falls very far short of how rules might be used as part of an educational process - so that students really learn something about the underlying principles of conduct.''

Is he hopeful that his crusade will be effective? His initial discussions with other academic leaders suggest to him that the topic is indeed timely and will increasingly appear on university agendas.

``Perhaps I will be laughed out of court, and nothing much will happen,'' he says with a chuckle. ``But I find it difficult not to think that it's an effort worth making.''

A Monday column