WFU symposiums explore liberal arts, moral issues in professional life
By Jacob McConnico
October 19, 2005
Hundreds of people gathered at two academic symposiums at Wake Forest University Oct. 19 to hear experts in fields ranging from religion to medicine discuss the value of a liberal arts education and the challenge of balancing career and personal aims with moral obligations.
Panelists (left to right) Andrew Delbanco, Jean Elshtain, Ken Miller, and Harry Stout at the morning symposium.
Wake Forest brought the experts together for two, two-hour academic symposiums held as part of a series of events this week celebrating the inauguration of Nathan O. Hatch as the 13th president of Wake Forest.
The culmination of the week will be a 3 p.m. ceremony Oct. 20 in Wait Chapel in which Hatch is installed as president. The installation ceremony is not open to the public.
"Why the Liberal Arts"
Moderated by Princeton historian Stanley N. Katz, the day's first symposium brought together leading scholars in the humanities and sciences to discuss "Why the Liberal Arts? Exploring the Aims of a University Education."
Katz and Andrew Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, emphasized the importance of a liberal arts education over a "utilitarian" education that focuses on preparation for success in the job market. Given the sociology of work in contemporary America and the decreasing likelihood that a person will work in the same job or even the same field for an entire career, "preparation for the first job after college is not the best preparation for a lifetime of work," Katz said. "A broader education, a liberal arts education, is likely to be more useful."
Katz, author of the recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Liberal Arts on the Ropes," said enrollment in the liberal arts disciplines has been declining for more than a generation while enrollment has increased in professional schools such as business.
"We are in a period where there is greater parental pressure for utilitarian education," said Katz.
The purpose of liberal education is to foster "a spirit of curiosity and restless inquiry," said Delbanco, who has written extensively about American history and culture.
"You can't have a democracy that functions in a just manner that is not made up of an educated citizenry."
Harry S. Stout, a nationally-known scholar on American religious history, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, said moral education has an important place in a liberal arts education.
Elshtain argued that "moral formation is going on in our classrooms all the time," regardless of the academic discipline and that it is an important outcome of a college education.
"It is time to re-couple facts and moral values" said Stout, Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School.
"Neither the side of faith or reason fare very well when faith and reason are driven apart," Elshtain said.
Questions such as where we come from, who we are and where we are going are just as important in science as in the humanities, said Ken Miller, professor of biology at Brown University and author of "Finding Darwin's God."
"Philosophers, humanists, social scientists all have answers to that question, but biologists have answers to that question, too," said Miller, who is a national expert in the debate over teaching intelligent design. The answers from science are not contradictory, but complimentary, he said.
Science is not just a "how-to technology", but "enormously enriches our ordinary experience of the world around us."
"Science tells us we are one with the fabric of life that unites everything on this planet, and is at the very heart of a liberal education," Miller said.
"The Moral Challenges of Professional Life"
Questions about how professionals balance career and personal aims with moral obligations that are sometimes at odds with those goals were brought into focus by a panel of distinguished leaders from the fields of business, medicine, religion and the law.
"It's fascinating in light of (Wake Forest's) religious history and (President Hatch's) own deep interest in religion that the first three definitions of profession in the Merriam-Webster dictionary are in fact religious," said E.J. Dionne Jr., moderator for the symposium, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, during his introductory remarks. "Morals, ethics and perhaps even faith are at the heart of what it means to pursue a profession."
Judge Ann C. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, participates in the afternoon panel discussion.
Panelists for the event discussed how values and morality play a role in each of their chosen professions, and James A. Autry, a former Fortune 500 executive and author of 10 books including the 1992 book, "Love and Profit, the Art of Leadership," told the audience that recent corporate corruption has been caused by increased pressure on businesses to produce constantly increasing earnings per share for stocks.
"The financial pressures (of business) only exacerbate the moral challenges of professional life." Autry said. "The everyday exigencies of organizational life frequently put managers in the position, not of choosing between right and wrong, but of choosing between more right or less right, more wrong or less wrong, between justice for the group versus justice for the individual or vice versa."
Charles K. Francis, a cardiologist and the Rudin Scholar in Urban Health and director of the Center for Health Disparities at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City, spoke at length about aspects that set the medical profession apart from other professions. He said most in the medical profession have long taken pride in its practitioners' willingness to sacrifice self interest while providing service to others. It's a view that Francis said has been less common with younger doctors.
"(Physicians) promise that we can be trusted and that there is a moral obligation to the patient/physician relationship, but as we know professionalism is being threatened by a wide array of societal forces," Francis said. "Medicine is both a profession and a business. We are now faced in medicine with the perception that medicine has become much more concerned with remuneration."
Francis outlined several challenges that face the medical profession, including the issue of safety and mistakes made in hospitals, the fact that the quality of health care received in the United States is below what the profession is capable of providing and unequal treatment in the medical care received by minorities in this country.
In contrast to Francis' outline of the challenges facing the medical profession, Ann C. Williams, a judge serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, outlined the challenges faced by individuals entering the legal profession.
Williams, who was the third African-American woman to serve on a federal appeals court, also serves on the board of directors for the "Just the Beginning Foundation," which was founded in 1993 to educate the public about the African-American judiciary and to award law scholarships to minority law students.
She said many people entering the legal profession find it hard to address moral obligations because of the high cost of education and the low pay that is received in important jobs in the public defenders office or working as a judicial clerk. College debt forces many first generation law students and minorities to pursue jobs at private firms.
"There is this assumption that because our constitution provides for due process of law … there is this belief that we all have equal access to justice in our court system," Williams said. "When we look at legal education today, its cost, the consequences of the costs, the salaries paid in the profession, the demands placed on lawyers, we can see the direct impact on lifestyle choices and what lawyers do in the practice."
Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, participated in the discussion and said one challenge that faced professionals in the world of religion has been the secularization of society.
"One thing that is changing is that religions are continuing to have significant impact on public life … ." Volf said. "That requires of us to change the classical modern way of approaching religion in public life and to offer some kind of alternative."
Volf said he proposes that citizens should advocate impartiality of state towards all overarching views of life, including secularism. He also said he advocates allowing religious people to bring arguments based on sacred texts and traditions into public debate. He said these are essential to a liberal, democratic society.