A debate among higher-education leaders at Duke University broke out in 2003, when news emerged that Nannerl O. Keohane, then president, was working with faculty members, led by Elizabeth Kiss, then an associate professor of political science and philosophy, to found the Kenan Institute for Ethics.
Stanley Fish, who had previously served as chair of the English department at Duke, believed ardently that the university would be violating its fundamental purpose of producing “value free” knowledge were it to even consider the idea that professors should foster students’ moral development. “You can’t make them into good people, and you shouldn’t try,” Fish wrote in a piece for The Chronicle, which he titled, “Aim Low.” Fish believed that ethical education was not only antithetical to higher education but also pedagogically unfeasible.
In response to Fish’s civic point of view, Kiss and J. Peter Euben, then a professor of political science at Duke, advised him to “Aim High,” as they put it in an essay from their collection Debating Moral Education. “In the end,” Kiss writes, “Fish offers us a cramped and compartmentalized vision of higher education that fails to do justice either to teaching or to pursuing a thoughtful ethical life.” Focusing on what is not happening, as Kiss articulates, is simply maintaining the status quo and provides neither direction nor possibility for imagining a brighter future.
Likewise, in “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” we are now transitioning from understanding where the status quo in education came from to the most exciting part of the MOOC: designing higher education from scratch. Our class is divided into three project teams, and each team is assigned not just to think through a model of the university but to create a new model. We will reconsider all the legacies, decide what we want or do not want, and then think about new approaches. A crowdsourced template of questions helps provoke our thinking as we design these new model universities. Tentatively, we’ve named our model university “Hand, Head, Heart University.” Ethics is one of our core values.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to collectively rethink how we can use our resources to design new ways of learning about and systematizing (or not) education. Through crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer learning, online modules, flipped classrooms, and anything else imaginable, we are working not only to reshape how we learn but, even more important, to re-examine why we educate ourselves in the first place.
The true purpose of education is to expand our sense of self and existential awareness in order to relate to one another and to contribute meaningfully to society. But with our history of adversity, ignorance, and complacency, how does one even start thinking about changing higher education? Why would we, anyway? When President Keohane established the Kenan Institute for Ethics, there was a critical need to deal with “an increasing lack of ethical standards in public affairs and in business life.”
Today the world is in an even more critical situation. The state of the economy and the rampant inequality in the United States and the world can no longer be ignored. As we learned in the first three weeks of the MOOC, Frederick W. Taylor designed theories on “scientific labor management,” and educators such as Frederick J. Kelly, inventor of the multiple-choice examination, engineered education for the purposes of mass efficiency and producing outcomes for the industrial age. In a digital age, what kind of education do we want to provide for our children and for ourselves? How will education propel us to become creatively entrepreneurial in our own lives, as opposed to being thoughtless consumers?
In the midst of asking those big questions, I wonder how I, a junior barely 21 years old, ended up enrolling in a class given the task of imagining a new university, a new way of learning, a new way of cooperating in society.
It was not just aiming high; it was knowing where I stood and then deciding to “Aim Even Higher” and reach for my goals, while treating every criticism along the way as feedback to “learn, unlearn, and relearn.” In the words of Professor Davidson, “‘realism’ often means working so hard to maintain the status quo against all odds, and ‘idealism’ sometimes means leadership among allies who see an opportunity to improve the world and make it better.”
When you think about it, burying your head in the sand takes a lot more effort than lifting yourself out of it. It is just that we know what the sand smells, feels, tastes, and looks like. Sameness is comforting. As we approach Week 4 of the MOOC, however, we are asking ourselves to lean into discomfort and aim even higher.
Image designed by Malina Chavez, an M.F.A. student in experimental and documentary arts at Duke University.