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Faith and reason

Morality is the overarching motif of inauguration's academic symposia.

At a time when students and their parents are clamoring for educational programs that are useful in the marketplace, what possible justification can universities offer for the continued viability and utility of liberal education?

A large part of the answer, a panel of esteemed academics agreed at a Wake Forest symposium October 19, is cultivation of a strong sense of one's moral values.

Morality was the overarching motif of a pair of symposia conducted as part of the festivities surrounding the inauguration of President Nathan O. Hatch. In a later session, a second panel addressed the moral challenges confronting the various professions.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a panelist in the morning symposium titled "Why the Liberal Arts? Exploring the Aims of a University Education," said moral formation should be a fundamental outcome of a college education.

"Neither faith nor reason fare well when they are driven apart," said Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. "One of the tasks of a liberal education is to heal this breach. Those who fear that dogma will overtake rational debate reveal a certain animosity toward the fundamental questions of who are we; why are we here; what is our responsibility to our fellow citizens?"

Harry S. Stout, Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School, echoed Elshtain's views when he said it is time to "recouple facts and moral values" in higher education. "It is for the living — for the sake of the present and the future — that the historian offers moral judgments" of historic events, said Stout, who has co-edited two scholarly works with Hatch. "One must ask not only what happened and when, but was it right?"

Andrew Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, said the great teachers are ones who "combat passivity and unquestioning acquiescence and foster a spirit of restless inquiry" in their students. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a prominent expert in the debate over the teaching of the so-called "intelligent design" theory in schools, said science — far from being "how-to technology," as humanists sometimes portray it — is central to liberal education because it "enriches our ordinary experience of the world around us." In the metabolic pathways of a cell, Miller said, one discovers not only "extraordinary beauty," but also where we came from, who we are, and where we're going. "We find we are one with the fabric of life that unites everything on this planet, which is at the very heart of a liberal education," he said.

In the afternoon session, titled "The Moral Challenges of Professional Life," the focus shifted from undergraduate to professional education but remained trained on questions of morality and ethics. Four panelists, each representing one of the major fields of business, medicine, divinity, and law, examined the distinctive and common issues confronting their professions.

James A. Autry, an author and consultant who formerly headed Meredith Corporation, which publishes Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal, said business decisions are ethical when they consider their impact on all of the people touched by the company, from managers and employees to suppliers and customers. But in emphasizing earnings per share, he said, companies today are favoring their shareholders over all other constituents, creating a dubious moral climate.

A couple of panelists discussed pressures that are compromising the public interest in medicine and law. Charles K. Francis, a cardiologist who serves as the Rudin Scholar in Urban Health and director of the Office of Urban Health Disparities at the New York Academy of Medicine, noted how today's medical school graduates, saddled with huge debt and unwilling to devote long hours to their practices, are obsessed with compensation and are foresaking internal and family medicine for technology-based specialties, jeopardizing medicine's accessibility. "Many students today," he said, "resent the notion that they have an obligation to take care of people." Judge Ann C. Williams, a member of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, cited statistics showing why only 5 percent of the law school graduates of 2004 work in public interest law. "Why is this a moral issue?" she asked. "As a society we believe in due process of law; that all of us somehow have access to our judicial system. But because public interest work is devalued, huge segments of society do not have access. Legal assistance is available only to those who can pay for it."

Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School, said American society tends to believe in "generic humanity" which enables us to relate to each other across religions. "But in truth there is no such thing as generic humanity," he said. "Particularity is part and parcel of humanity." Volf said religions should be allowed to bring arguments based on their sacred texts into public debate. "And work environments shouldn't be faith-free, but faith-friendly," he added.

— David Fyten




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