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How wrong, in retrospect, my reluctance was. In Orem, Utah, I encountered one of the most heartening scenes in higher education that I have ever witnessed in my long career: an overflow crowd of around 150 in the main room and as many in an adjacent room, a crowd of students who were not just marking time — believe me, I know all too well what that looks like. These were students who were really paying attention the entire hour, and who then peppered me with very hard questions for another hour. I was lecturing about justice for nonhuman animals, a topic about which I feel passionate and which is the subject of my recent book, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility. I hope I communicated that passion in my lecture, but it is a topic that is controversial and divisive. The students didn’t hesitate to contest the philosophical approach I was advocating, or to grill me about issues important to their own lives, such as hunting. By the end of that intense debate at high altitude (Orem is close to 5,000 feet above sea level), I felt that I had gotten a real workout, and was moved and amazed.
The required course, called “Ethics and Values,” includes topics in the history of ethics, ethical theory, and applied ethics. Individual professors have considerable latitude in choosing the readings for their own sections, which are capped at 30 students. Shaw is a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy, and his syllabi have that historical focus; others focus on other parts of the historical tradition. But all address central theoretical issues and debate them, often with reference to practical issues. The class began in 1986 and has been required since the college became a four-year institution, in 1993. Elaine Englehardt, a professor of ethics and philosophy, secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to found the course, and a variety of grants and awards have assisted it along the way. But state government is its indispensable funding source, and the faculty members I met, hearing ominous news from other states, wondered anxiously about whether their own Legislature would continue its support.
What interests me here, however, is the impact of the course on an entire student body, highly diverse in preparation and aspiration. Given the current high quality of its planning and teaching, the students reap three distinct benefits from “Ethics and Values.” First — and this is what I have emphasized in my own writings on the topic — they learn skills essential for good citizenship in our polarized society: how to debate about fundamental matters with civility and respect, and how to examine themselves in Socratic fashion, asking why they hold the beliefs they do, and how strong the foundation for those beliefs is.
In Orem, Utah, I encountered one of the most heartening scenes in higher education that I have ever witnessed in my long career.
Second, they become far more attractive to potential employers, because they have confidence in their own mental capacity and are relatively free from deference to mere fads. And, counter to growing conventional wisdom, humanities graduates do quite nicely in the job market, as The Chronicle notes in its reporting on new data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
David Rubenstein, a founder of the Carlyle Group, a private-equity firm, and current chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago (where I teach), emphasizes this constantly in speeches to business leaders. He argues that the trend for increasing support for STEM fields at the expense of the humanities is counterproductive in terms of business success itself: The humanities teach general problem-solving skills that can be applied later across a wide range of fields, thus leading students to greater success over time. Supporting his arguments with data showing the earnings over time of students with liberal-arts backgrounds, he has even coined a jocular formula to compete with the flashy STEM: H = MC, “Humanities equals more cash”!
From this point of view, it is hardly surprising that the president of UVU, Astrid Tuminez — among the world’s leading business educators and practitioners (with a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and a background as a global-conflict-resolution negotiator) — has not only supported the philosophy course but even chosen a provost, Wayne Vaught, who is by profession a philosopher. Nor is it surprising that this charismatic woman — whose corporate work includes a period as Microsoft’s regional director for corporate, external, and legal affairs for Southeast Asia — bothered to attend my lecture, where she followed the discussion with evident enthusiasm.
Finally, and most important, these students exude confidence and pride in their lives. Their curiosity and newfound sense of self-mastery is likely to sustain them through life’s vicissitudes and give them a deep inner world into which to delve when the going is tough, the “inner citadel” of which the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics spoke as they confronted their own tough times. What I saw was joy, the sort of joy the philosopher Seneca described: not the flighty joy of the partygoer, but a solid inner joy that comes from discovering yourself. (Seneca was no armchair contemplative, but a leading Roman politician, who died for his republican ideals.)
So far, state legislators in Utah have shown remarkable prescience and independence by not following the humanities-cutting fad. Long may their wisdom continue!