A Stanford education and social engagement

Alex Bayer’s excellent piece on the humanities’ role in a college education brought to mind this column, originally published April 30, 2012.

The purpose of a university education can sometimes seem a self-evident truth, on par with life, liberty and the fact that Cal sucks. The modern university, after all, obviously exists to promote learning and instill knowledge, to equip its students with a set of technical skills and to provide a safe, open space in which the intellect may thrive and develop.

But might intellectual goals alone constitute too narrow a vision, too humble an ambition, too timid an aspiration for a university that has always dreamed of better?

In a landmark 1837 speech to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously defined the “American Scholar” as a man of energetic action as well as nuanced and advanced intellect. Emerson urged each student to become more than what he called a “mere thinker” – to become something larger than the accumulated library of his inner knowledge, to mold each man’s being into something greater than the sum of his intellectual parts. The great American thinker and poet concluded with his now-famous assertion that “character is higher than intellect” – that the scholar’s mind is not his only implement, not even his defining one.

Emerson understood the distinction between mind and soul and knew that a finely honed intellect could flourish in men and women of empty spirit. But he had higher aspirations for the American university; Emerson had the audacity to dream of a curriculum that shaped its students into complete moral beings, rather than mere soulless vehicles for the transmission and acquisition of knowledge.

In his wonderful essay “The Disparity between Intellect and Character,” Harvard professor Robert Coles tells the story of a brilliant moral philosophy student who treated his housekeeper, a fellow undergraduate at Harvard forced to clean rooms to pay her way through school, with the same respect he might give the trash she picked up. One day this young woman entered Coles’ office in tears. “I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what’s true, what’s important, what’s good,” she cried. “Well, how do you teach people to be good?”

Coles knew, as did Emerson, that the disparity between intellect and character can be mapped onto the distinction between thought and action – that what one has inside the head matters much less than what one does with it. This is not a new or original idea – indeed, it amounts to scarcely more than the old adage that actions speak louder than words.

But ought a university, in fact, teach people to “be good”?  How can we teach each student to pursue what John Rawls termed her “conception of the good” without imposing a standardized, cookie-cutter picture of what that good looks like?

As we argue about the perils and benefits of social engagement inside the classroom, I have to admit that I don’t know the answer. But I do know that there is a role for the modern university in wedding the power of the rigorous mind to the wisdom that comes with moral character.

In his 1957 classic Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes tells the heartbreaking story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man who undergoes an experimental procedure to increase his IQ. We are introduced to a Charlie whose problem-solving skills are inferior to those of Algernon, a mouse in the lab. Soon, Charlie’s mind outstrips that of the doctors who engineered his transformation.

But he is no happier, no more secure, no friendlier. Charlie’s being is no more morally valuable than it was before the surgery; his newly powerful intellect serves only to give him a clearer appreciation of the faults and foibles of humankind. As he stands before the group of intellectually brilliant but morally empty scientists who made him who he is, Charlie finally shouts, “There’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.”

Stanford has always been a school of doers, of men and women of action and energy employed in the service of visible achievement. The “College of the West,” David Starr Jordan wrote in 1904, is home to no “dewy-eyed monk,” no “stoop-shouldered grammarian.” The true Stanford scholar is the “leader of enterprise, the builder of states.”

As we pursue Jordan’s vision, let’s not forget the words of Emerson, Coles and Keyes.  We have work to do.

Miles welcomes your thoughts and comments at milesu1@stanford.edu.

About Miles Unterreiner

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