Submitted by Amy Lewis on November 5, 2012 - 3:00am
It's advising season on my campus. My management students will want guidance selecting their spring classes. Their major classes are easy to pick -- we have checklists and flowcharts to let them know what they "need" to take. It's the general education requirements and free electives that stump them. I typically point out that employers want well-rounded employees who can draw on a breadth of knowledge. Sometimes I share that the best course I took as an undergraduate was a physical geography class completely unrelated to my major — that you never know which class will completely captivate you. This fall, I will tell my students something different as I urge them to consider taking classes outside of the business school: Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to sell offensive T-shirts.
Last week, I was browsing the web, looking for current events to discuss in my undergraduate management classes. I came across several mentions of a T-shirt being sold by the Gap bearing the phrase "Manifest Destiny" and the unsurprising outrage and calls for Gap to stop selling the shirt and to offer a formal apology. Facing protests that the shirt was, at best, culturally insensitive and could easily be interpreted as glorifying the massacres and cultural destruction of Native Americans, the designer apparently issued a flippant tweet about the survival of the fittest. Quickly, Gap stopped selling the shirt, and issued an apology.
As a business professor, I initially planned to discuss the story and link it to the decision process that lead to the shirt’s initial release. As I read the unsatisfying apologies from the designer, I considered linking back to a recent class discussion on restoring trust and qualities of a sincere and effective apology. However, as I prepared for my class discussion, I realized that none of these topics really captured why I wanted to discuss the story with my students. It wasn’t so much the business blunder that I wanted to discuss; rather I wanted my students to come away from our discussion with an understanding of why, as business students, it is so crucial for them to have a broad background in the liberal arts.
Although I teach in a business school, my university has a long history and commitment to the liberal arts. We recently had candidates for president of our university on campus, and a common question the candidates were asked was how to articulate the value of the liberal arts. This is a crucial question, as there are clear attacks on the liberal arts through a devaluation of their contribution to society, cuts in research funding, and state governments questioning the appropriateness of distributing scarce budget resources to the liberal arts.
I argue to you, as I did to my students, that the Gap T-shirt is an excellent example of why the liberal arts matter. An American history class might have given a better understanding of the massacres committed under the name of Manifest Destiny. A sociology class might have given an understanding of the implications of the institutionalized oppression of Native Americans in the aftermath of these programs. A philosophy class might have led those involved to pause and consider the ethical implications of profiting from genocide. A strong liberal arts education might have prevented the sale of this offensive T-shirt, and the backlash a company faced.
A well-educated population is crucial for a vibrant economy, and in these times of constrained resources, a liberal arts education might be seen as an unaffordable luxury. I see parents encouraging their children to avoid majors in the liberal arts in favor of "something employable." I see students questioning the value of the liberal arts core curriculum we require. Some resent being "forced" to study a foreign language. Others question how they can justify the expense of a study abroad experience. Too many feel their time is being “wasted” by taking classes outside of their major. As business faculty, clearly I see great value in my students pursuing an undergraduate business major or an M.B.A., but that does not mean higher education should simply be conceptualized as job training.
Even if we accept an argument that we must prepare all of our students for their future working lives, the broad background provided by a liberal arts education can help our students see the connections from the past, to understand that there are multiple viewpoints or cultural lenses through which to view the world. To critically think -- to stop and realize that "Manifest Destiny" is not just a catchy phrase, but rather a complex issue from our past, loaded with pain and outrage.
My university recently redesigned our general education curriculum to afford students more flexibility and the opportunity to explore courses as free electives. I encourage my advisees to take advantage of this opportunity to take classes from other academic units — to take that sociology course that just sounds interesting, the course in political science that captures their interests. It is precisely the breadth of background gained by this exploration that is the true value of a liberal arts education. Be well rounded — check out courses in the humanities. Take a literature class or something in the behavioral sciences. I’m sure the Gap wishes someone had paid a little more attention in an American history class to avoid the sale of this offensive T-shirt.
Amy Lewis is associate professor of management at Drury University.
The news that 125 Harvard students were under investigation for cheating on an exam came just days after we were informed that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was stripping Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France titles. In both of these cases, we have alleged wrongdoing by those at the top of their fields, and there is no reason to think that it was cheating that got them there. The Harvard students were admitted to our top university because of their hard work and scholarly achievement. Armstrong would have been a racing legend regardless. It is easy to understand why those who are not in the upper echelon might seek illicit advantage in order to get their shot at greatness, but why would the already great cheat?
To act in an ethical way requires two steps: first, you need to figure out what would be the right thing to do in your particular situation, and second, you need to actually do it. Usually, when we commit immoral acts, it is a failure of the second step. We know we shouldn’t do it, but we do it anyway.
Maybe it was expedient, maybe it got us something we really wanted or allowed us to hide some misdeed or embarrassing error, or perhaps it was peer pressure or rebellion. Usually, we are fully aware when we are doing something we shouldn’t and we try to hide it or rationalize it. Fewer are the times when we act wrongly by moral miscalculation, when we thought about how to behave and came up with the wrong answer. But that may be exactly what happened in these cases.
If what we value is out of whack, then so will be our decisions about what constitutes proper action. If we are driven solely by ends, if success and achievement are the only things to which we assign worth, then the means will seem unimportant by contrast.
In athletics, we celebrate winners. Sporting goods stores are full of t-shirts with sayings such as “Second place is the first loser” or “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Wheaties boxes are reserved for champions. The message is clear – it is not the training, practicing or competing, but the victory that is valued. The playing of the game is fleeting, quickly forgotten but for the highlight reel; it is only the win or the loss that becomes a thing in itself and lives on forever.
If sports were about the playing, then cheating would be not only wrong, but irrational -- it destroys the entire reason for engaging in the sport. If a mountain climber’s goal is to say he stood at the peak of Kilimanjaro, then he could get there by helicopter and the climbing would become irrelevant. And if what we value changes from the doing to what has been done, then cheating becomes desirable.
What we see in sports is now being deeply embedded in the classroom. It is not the acquiring of knowledge, understanding, or insight, but rather the grade that is important. We are less interested in learning than in learning outcomes.
The switch is subtle, but critically important. If students love thinking and learning, then cheating cheats them of what they seek. There would be a disincentive to take short cuts.
But if process is trumped by outcomes in education, then cheating become rational. Add a competitive element in which there will be positive or negative consequences for having higher or lower marks and you develop a culture in which seeking any means to better scores becomes natural and normal, not only accepted but lauded. In this environment, the cheater is seen as “beating the system”, as having played the game better, not worse.
This may be what happened at Harvard. With standardized tests and concern about learning outcomes assessment, we have altered how we look at learning purportedly to help it improve. But what we have done is to sow the seeds of that which undermines it and leads to the destruction of what made it valuable in the first place.
Steve Gimbel is chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College.
I remember how bad I felt when I assigned my first F. The night before I turned in my grades, I could barely sleep; I kept tossing and turning, worrying about the student who was about to fail. I thought this failure was going to ruin this kid’s future; he was doomed, I was certain, to a life of meaningless jobs for sub-minimum wage because his first-year writing teacher failed him. I equated his failing with my failure: He failed by not doing the work, and I failed him on an existential level because I was not able to keep him from failing.
As my mentors at the time explained to me, it did indeed get easier to give Fs. One of the reasons was linguistic; I stopped saying I was "giving" grades and instead switched to the language of "recording what the student earned." In this case, semantics did make a difference, but, truthfully, in the 15 years since I "recorded" that first F, I have never felt good about it. Contrary to what many students believe, giving — ahem, recording — failures is not fun. Teachers do not celebrate when students fail; and many, myself included, often bend over backward to find ways to allow students to pass. We listen to their stories, their excuses, their reasons, and we give an extension or some extra credit. We work hard — sometimes harder than the students themselves — to help them pass.
I never really questioned this practice until I stepped into the dean’s role in academic services. At my institution, the dean of academic services oversees the granting of incompletes, leaves of absence and withdrawals (both voluntary and required), and any and all academic issues students may be having. In practical terms, this means that almost every student who is struggling academically sooner or later comes to my attention. While my role is to counsel students about academic issues, inevitably their personal lives — mental, social, physical, emotional -- are wrapped up in their academic issues, so I hear stories that range from the tragic to the sad to the more mundane.
As dean, I spend much of my day listening to tales about dying grandparents, sick siblings, financial struggles, drug and alcohol addiction, family troubles, roommate troubles, classroom troubles — the list is endless. In many ways, I am still the softie I was 15 years ago; I often believe students' stories — even the most fantastical ones — until they give me a reason to doubt them. I have learned, though, how to balance my (perhaps) naïve sense of trust with the realities of needing documentation. It does take some skill to express sympathy in one breath and in the very next breath ask for a copy of an obituary. Where I have noticed the biggest shift in my thinking, however, has been with the issue of giving Fs.
Perhaps because the students I talk to every day are not “my” students (i.e., I am not their teacher, and I don’t actually have to assign a grade), I now have a broadened perspective on the importance of — and even the educational value of — failing. At the end of the semester, for instance, I often get e-mails from professors saying something like, "Sally hasn’t been to class since spring break, has missed her midterm and her final and hasn’t responded to my e-mails. What should I do?” I have to restrain myself from simply writing back: “FAIL HER.” As the dean and not Sally’s teacher, I am able to see Sally’s situation as cut-and-dried: she has disappeared and stopped doing the work. She has chosen, for whatever reason, not to complete the course and the consequence of her decision is an F.
I’m sure at this point some of my readers are thinking that I am being too quick to judge Sally, that there must be extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration. About 50 percent of the time, those readers are correct: something has happened in Sally’s life that has caused her to disappear from the classroom. Sometimes that situation is the common one of a first-year student not sure how to handle the sudden freedom of college and deciding to spend too much time on the social. But there are other scenarios, too: Sally has been very ill; Sally has lost a parent; Sally has a learning disability but thought she could handle college without accommodations; Sally is anxious, depressed, addicted, or a combination of all three.
I always reach out to students when I hear they are in trouble. Some respond but most don’t. If Sally does come to see me, I patiently listen as she tells her story. Sometimes, I might cry right along with her. There are indeed days when I have to close my door to grieve over what I have just heard, weeping for the complicated and overwhelming lives some of our students lead. But even in these worst cases, when Sally’s story breaks me, I still think Sally should fail.
If Sally’s circumstances have indeed been difficult — and they often are — I will look for ways to get her back on track. I might help her get an appointment with the counseling center or walk her down to register with our disability coordinator. I will explain the academic support services we have on campus and show her how to register for those. I will help her think about ways summer courses or interim courses might allow her to catch up on her requirements so she can still graduate in four years. In other words, I will do whatever I can to help Sally except advocate for her to get a passing grade she did not earn
Sally should fail because she did not complete the work; she did not learn what the course proposed to teach; she was not educated. If the university allows Sally to pass, we will be failing her in a much more serious way: we will be failing her as an institution that is deeply committed to learning, failing her as mentors, failing her as human beings. If we do not let Sally fail, she will not learn that adults need to take responsibility for their actions, even when the chips are down, even when the world seems like it is coming to an end. She will not learn that sometimes, for reasons beyond our control, even the best of us fail. If we do not allow her to fail, she will not have the chance to learn resilience. She will not learn to ask for help or recognize the importance of communication. If we don’t allow Sally to fail, she will not learn that adult life is hard and often unfair and that success is defined in that critical moment between giving up or staying the course.
I do not enjoy watching students fail any more than I did 15 years ago, but now I see failures as part and parcel of the total experience of a college education. Like so much in life, failure and success are just different ends of the same spectrum. Learning to navigate that spectrum with integrity, grace, humility, and a little grit, is one of the most important skills colleges can teach.
Melissa Nicolas is interim associate dean of academic services at Drew University.