The Ethical Failings of Higher Education

In a perceptive essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Slip-Sliding Away, Down the Ethical Slope”, Robert J. Sternberg suggests that the educational system is contributing to society’s increasing ethical weaknesses by adopting misplaced priorities. He writes:

“Schools need to teach students the steps involved in ethical behavior and the challenges of executing them. And they need to do so with real-life case studies relevant to the students’ lives. The steps toward ethical behavior are not ones that students can internalize by memorization, but only through active experiential learning with personally relevant examples.

“There is a larger question our society must face: Have we abrogated what should be a fundamental responsibility of higher education? The financiers who helped to create the financial meltdown of 2008 were, for the most part, bright and well educated. Many were graduates of this country’s finest colleges and universities. Is it possible that, in placing so much emphasis on grades and test scores, we are failing to select for and teach the qualities that will produce not just ethical individuals but also ethical leaders?”

You can read the entire article here.

Sternberg also lays out an eight step process to achieve ethical action. There are many such lists, but this is a good, succinct one:

1. Recognize that there is a situation that deserves to be noticed and reflected upon.

2. Define the situation as having an ethical component.

3. Decide that the ethical component is important enough to deserve attention.

4. View the ethical component as relevant to you personally.

5. Ascertain what ethical rule applies to the situation.

6. Figure out how to apply the ethical rule.

7. Prepare for possible adverse consequences, such as retaliation, if you should act ethically.

8. Act.

4 thoughts on “The Ethical Failings of Higher Education

  1. It is so bad now that to truly acknowledge ethics is seen as suspect. When I catch a student cheating, they don’t come to me to request a letter of recommendation for medical school because they know I will mention it. I do tell their advisors (who do write these letters), but the advisors generally don’t feel that mentioning it is fair. I catch heat for bringing the subject up. When other faculty bring cheating by my advisees to my attention, it is normally hesitantly. “I don’t want this to affect their grades or recommendations, but I thought you should know” is the main attitude.

    This is probably one of the reasons the number of premeds who choose me as an advisor has gone down.

    • Yes—cheating in academia is getting to the point where “everybody does it” actually has warped the culture. I’m not sure how we combat that, especially if the faculty members who try get the end-around.

  2. You need to be applauded for your stance and your profile needs to increase. By increasing your profile, it would send a clear message that anyone that receives a recommendation from you is a head above someone who receives a recommendation from another.

  3. You have to wonder about what happened to high school courses in civics. Do any of these modern professional educators understand the concept? Do they ever point out the school seal which, to my HS experience, almost always included the term “citizenship”? These aren’t just words to fill in space. They’re supposed to have meaning. But, as in all things, these ideals are only as good as the willingness of constituted authority to uphold them. And when those authorities fail to pass them on to our children, who will stand up for them in the future? This is especially important in a nation that is DEFINED by ideals alone.

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