Students have lost their honor! The recent revelation that 64 Dartmouth College students were charged with cheating this past fall was followed by the predictable comments on a larger social malaise. We learned that some students allegedly ditched classes, providing their handheld electronic “clickers” to other students who attended and then answered questions on their behalf. There were also students who reportedly passed clickers to their classroom neighbors to answer questions for them.
To make matters worse, this happened in an ethics class. The students have been decried for their self-centeredness and lack of scruples; some wonder how they could be allowed to remain at Dartmouth. What better evidence of the decline of honor in a society where, in the instructor’s words, “it’s not surprising that students would want to trade the nebulous notion of honor with what they perceive as some sort of advantage in professional advancement.”
The instructor may be right, but the decline in honor in this instance cannot be separated from another problem: How we define student learning, and how learning is relevant to the advancement of democracy. Were those cheating Dartmouth students wanting in honor? Yes, and they should be held accountable for their poor judgment. But their lack of honesty lies at the surface of a larger issue: How do they find value in the subject matter presented to them?
If the subject matter of ethics or any field of study is presented as a body of fixed truths that students get or don’t get (clicking correctly or incorrectly), then how does it have meaning in their experience? The answer, of course, is obvious – subject matter matters as students’ ability to prove that they know what those in authority know, avoiding the painful consequences of failing to do so. When subject matter is ready-made information to just “learn,” then the fields they study have been depleted of their creative oxygen.
The issue of “honor” is then reduced to whether or not students honestly reproduce what has been transmitted to them. The American philosopher John Dewey saw that there is no a better prescription for developing a misguided sense of the world as closed, with the meanings of things already settled, as opposed to in flux, open to interpretation, change.
What should society desire from higher education in the long term? The value of higher education is under intense scrutiny today. Should colleges be rated against set criteria, will this or that type of degree yield employment; how does the so-called value proposition drive the publics’ view of higher education? The question I am posing here concerns how higher education can contribute to democratic citizenship.
We need higher education to excite students with the prospect of their participation in the advancement of knowledge and solutions to social problems. This is how education can serve the development of an imagination, as well as of the capacity for and motivation toward making sense of and improving the world with others. Do we want our students to have honor? Let’s help them to see and experience their own potential to make a real difference through their learning, and not just by getting a grade or earning a degree.
Learning can mean cramming in information as “subject matter” and being done with it. It can also mean embracing the power of academic fields to open mysteries, to anchor present and future living in intellectual and creative pursuit and discovery. In order for education to reach its transformative potential, what the educational theorist Maxine Greene called the “lure of incompleteness” should frame our conception of subject matter and the activities it incites. Education can be an opening for the building of sensitivity to an environment in flux, where meanings are not settled, fixed, and where anticipation of and solutions to problems are possible.
James Ostrow is vice president for academic affairs at Lasell College.
A tenured professor of sociology at Colorado State University at Pueblo is suing the institution for allegedly violating his free speech rights as he tried to organize protests over planned layoffs, the Denver Post reported. Tim McGettigan, the professor, says that his email and computer access were blocked in January 2014, after the university announced it was planning to shed 50 faculty and staff members – and after McGettigan emerged as a key critic of the move. In the lawsuit, McGettigan also alleges the university’s computer access policy -- which bans the creation, storage or transmission of content that Pueblo “may deem to be offensive, indecent or obscene” – is unconstitutional. Elizabeth Wang, McGettigan’s attorney, said the professor is still barred from sending group distribution emails. A university spokesman declined to comment on any pending litigation.
A new study in the journal Science offers a new theory for gender gaps in academe. Researchers at Princeton University surveyed faculty members, postdocs and graduate students on whether they believed raw brilliance (as opposed to just hard work) was needed to get ahead in their discipline. In disciplines where there are strong beliefs about brilliance as a key factor to success, the number of women earning doctorates is lower than in other fields. The numbers of women earning doctorates go up in fields where scholars tend to believe that hard work and dedication are what matter.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees issued a statement Thursday that it will not reconsider its decision to block the hiring of Steven Salaita to a tenured faculty position teaching American Indian studies. The statement said that news accounts of a recent report of a faculty panel -- which found many irregularities in the way Salaita's hiring was blocked, and said that some of them raise academic freedom issues -- "may have given the mistaken impression that the decision regarding Dr. Salaita might be reconsidered. It will not." Salaita's hiring was blocked last year -- after proceeding so far that his courses were announced and he quit his prior job -- amid concerns about the tone of his anti-Israel comments on Twitter.
The board statement said: "Here, the decision concerning Dr. Salaita was not reached hastily. Nor was it the result of external pressures. The decision did not present a 'new approach' to the consideration of proposed faculty appointments. It represented the careful exercise of each board member’s fiduciary duty and a balancing of all of the interests of the University of Illinois. In the end, this is a responsibility that cannot be delegated nor abdicated."
The Faculty Senate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham voted no confidence Thursday in the leadership of President Ray Watts, AL.com reported. Faculty members said Watts had failed to consult them in a much debated decision to eliminate the football program and also in other matters. But just hours after the vote, board members expressed strong support for Watts.