April 25, 2008

C.U. Profs Consider the Place of Ethics in Univ. Classrooms

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Every year in in ALS 101: Transition and Success at Cornell, Prof. Brian Earle ’68, communication, does an exercise with his students about their priorities for their future professions. All around the room, he puts up numbers from one to 10, and the students go to a specific number depending on the degree to which they agree with the statement being read — one being in agreement and 10 indicating disagreement.
This past fall, Earle read the following statements: “Making a lot of money in my job is important to me” and “A job which enables me to contribute to society is important to me.” According to Earle, the majority of students in the class walked over to the numbers indicating they prioritized making money.
Earle acknowledged that this has been a consistent trend amongst his students. He attributes the emphasis on wealth to the publicity of stories about Americans amassing huge sums of money. Many college students are familiar with the stories of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of the Facebook, and Larry Page, co-founder of Google, both of whom are young, self-made billionaires.
Earle believes exercises like this, where he has an opportunity to affect the values and priorities of his students, are a vital part of the educational system.
“Education is where you have to fight this sort of thing,” Earle said of the negative trend he has seen developing in his students’ value systems.
“I think it’s my role to make sure that the notions of social responsibility should be on the table,” Earle said.
In his class Comm 301: Business and Professional Pre­sen­tation, Earle devotes five minutes at the beginning of many lectures to discussing relevant, ethical decision-making in business.
Dan Perkins ’08 served as Earle’s “conservative protagonist” in the class. Earle enjoyed Perkins’s contributions to the class discussions because he always brought up different perspectives that many students may not have considered.
While Emily Isaacs ’11 believes that the majority of college students have well entrenched their personal ideas of responsibility by the time they get to college, she agrees with Earle’s idea about teaching responsibility to students through discussion and bringing in opposing viewpoints.
“I think they should open it up to discussion,” Isaacs said. “That way they’re not saying their own opinion, but at the same time [the professors are] letting the students see [all] sides of the spectrum.”
Retired professor Richard Baer began the Agricultural and Environmental Ethics program at Cornell in 1974.
“Students have been taught that the purpose of life is [their] own self-fulfillment,” Baer said.
Baer explained this is a philosophy of egotistic hedonism, where students are indoctrinated with the concept of living their lives with their own happiness as top priority.
While Baer agrees with Isaacs that college students’ morals and values are typically well developed by the time they come to college, he stressed that at the college level, professors teaching ethics need to try and change the way their students view the world.
“In my own teaching of ethics, we also try to include some material that had a kind of motivational effect that helped the students see the world in a different way,” Baer said. “[And make] them perhaps begin to think that maybe life is not all about me.”
In a recent survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a majority of both students and faculty agree that the teaching of social and personal responsibilities has a place in the classroom. However, the majority of those surveyed do not believe that this type of instruction is actually taking place.
According to Earle, Isaacs and Baer, teaching needs to stretch beyond a professor lecturing and the interjecting his or her own beliefs amidst the course material. They believe a college-level education should be more focused on incorporating multiple perspectives and forcing students to think differently.
Baer believes that this devotion to multiple opinions and consideration of all perspectives should not just be a standard set by professors in their classrooms, but by the administration as well.