I always tell prospective students and friends that at Cornell we take everything to the extreme — academics, social activities, extracurriculars and the like. Here, there is a cultural emphasis on distinguishing oneself through rigorous and tireless effort, and achievement measured by quantified indicators. Absent from our daily lives, however, is an emphasis on character and moral action.
Institutions within Cornell that historically purported to promote character no longer do so. As a result, material success tends to subjugate the importance of moral agency in our various pursuits.
In a column published last week in The New York Times, David Brooks honored the recently deceased social scientist James Q. Wilson for returning “the vocabulary of character into discussions of everyday life.” Brooks echoed Wilson’s definition of character as the promotion of basic virtues such as cooperation, decency, responsibility and balanced behavior.
In recounting Wilson’s work, Brooks emphasized the promotion of virtue not through religion or imposition but rather habit and daily reinforcement of “practicing good manners … being dependable, punctual and responsible.” In other words, the character Wilson defines and Brooks espouses results from constant practice of the values and actions consistent with living an honest, balanced and good life.
Unfortunately, I have seen little promotion of the aforementioned moral virtues during my time at Cornell. That doesn’t mean character doesn’t have a place at a modern, secular university such as ours. Rather, it represents a failure or evolution on the part of institutions originally designed to encourage the development of a strong, balanced moral compass.
Fraternities and sororities at Cornell have certainly evolved such that they no longer exist to instill character in their members. The creeds of many Greek organizations allude to moral virtues and daily activities, at one point, seemingly enforced their practice. Today, however, their purpose is primarily to provide a social outlet. This isn’t a bad thing; I am a proud fraternity member. But social and brotherhood activities don’t revolve around daily moral action. Our Greek organizations, instead of promoting virtues, perpetuate the cultural norms inherent to East Hill.
More formally, academic policies are designed to ensure students develop a strong sense of morality in academic settings. The Academic Code of Conduct encapsulates standards regarding honor and proper academic behavior. Despite serving as the seeming moral code for studies, it’s rarely read or understood. Instead, I see it regularly flouted. The first time I saw a professor actively discuss and require reading of the Code of Conduct was this semester, in the Introductory Statistics class I serve as a T.A. for. In a similar vein, the first time any course required me to complete a plagiarism tutorial was “Ethics at Work.” Generally, we as Cornellians seem to prioritize merely completing academic work over completing it properly.
Ideally, student leaders would serve as models of proper character. As is true for our nation and society, however, leaders and role models aren’t selected based on their daily displays of honesty and decency. Student leaders are elected and admired because they are seemingly the most goal-focused, driven and future-oriented among us. Sometimes this leads to questionable moral decision-making; for example, a candidate implicated in a potential fraud scandal recently won election to the Student Assembly. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a judgment of student leaders themselves. I find many to be commendable individuals who greatly improve Cornell. The election process and results just happen to reflect our valuing of material success over daily moral virtue.
The popular cultural values reinforced daily at Cornell are in line with the mantra of “everything to the extreme.” Whether it be our work, weekend activities or clubs we stress results at any cost. Much of this attitude is reflected in the career-mindedness that reverberates across campus. There is tremendous pressure to achieve quantified success in terms of prelim scores, beers consumed and positions achieved. Such an approach to achievement compromises and rejects the importance of true excellence in our daily lives.
I sometimes feel lost on campus as one who tries to value and appreciate the display of good character. Attempting to live honestly, responsibly, cooperatively and in balance is extremely difficult, in light of campus norms. I frequently find myself failing at self-control and thus not achieving the qualities of character I so admire. Nevertheless, it’s the attempts at and habituation of moral virtue that are important. Moral values can only been practiced through habit, and so I hope that others too see the need to try practicing actions representative of good character. An appreciation for daily moral virtues cannot be inculcated and instead must be organic.
While Brooks celebrates the role of character in American society, I find myself troubled by its lack of place at Cornell. Institutional limitations and shifts reflect not administrative failures but a cultural attitude. Simply put, the onus is on us to step back and question just what qualities we look for and value in each other. After all, happiness and true success post-Cornell will not come from quantified achievement but rather from having a strong moral compass. No grand action or unseasonably warm Ithaca winter can inspire us to improve our behavior in this regard. Instead, we have to try and, perhaps initially fail, at incorporating small actions in line with good character into our daily lives.
Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.