There are many skills and facts that you can learn in school. You can find out how to compute confidence intervals in a statistics class, or learn that the manubrium is part of your sternum with help from an anatomy and physiology class. You can even discover that Paul Revere had been assisted by his daughter on his famous ride from a history class. These are all things you can learn in school, either by application or memorization, however one class has always alluded me as a plausible skill to learn. That single way of thinking being ethics.
Most higher education degrees require a student to take an ethics class in their course requirements. The first college that I attended offered several that could be chosen from, and there was a mandatory “core values” class required as well. This class helped to establish how a good student should behave, and how they should think about potential problems that may arise in class or at their future places of employment. It was worth one credit hour, and was usually a course that met once a week (though you could take it online, and in an eight week format as well).
I had signed up for it several times, but it either did not fit my schedule in the end, or I did not feel like taking it at the time. Finally, after being in school for three and a half years I decided I needed to absolutely register for it. The course was one of the first classes a student should take, so that they could establish a firm ground to have their education stand upon for the rest of their academic life. Oddly enough, it was the last class that I took at the college for my degree. By then I had held several positions on various committees (including student member of the board of trustees), and I was just about to graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
In that small core values class of eight people I did not really learn anything. We talked about ethics, and how to deal with some issues that may arise in our lives, however there was nothing new to talk about. I felt that I knew the difference between right and wrong, and it was really no concern of mine to discover some new value a teacher thought was locked away deep inside of my mind. Instead I day dreamed a significant amount. All the topics we covered were not new to me. I had considered moral and ethical ideas since I had been a child. I vividly remember discussing these issues with my family, especially my great grandpa, for many hours at a time. I really did not require this class to discern anything further.
After the class was over I spoke to a student, and she mentioned that the class had been insightful; she had discovered a significant amount about her inner thoughts by taking it. She said that she had not really considered idea or thoughts such as what we had discussed. This class had opened her eyes to ethical decision-making for the first time. I was shocked. How did she not know these things about herself already? How had she not weighed out the difference between lying and being truthful? (Also see my “Is Honesty the Best Policy?” blog post from a few weeks ago.) How did she not know that it is not always good to go with the crowd? How did she not know what a good person was, or how an ethical student should behave?
I honestly do not know. How had I been a twelve-year-old talking about these things, while she was a twenty-something who was just now discovering her own views on the subject of cheating in class or lying on a job application? I could not believe it. Why had it taken a prompt from a teacher for her to think about these things? And more importantly why had she not considered these things before now? She had gone through high school without any waning thought on the topic, had entered college, and was just now thinking that it might be wrong to cheat. That’s not great.
Another aspect of ethics classes I had noticed was the lack of ethics. I enrolled in an ethics class a few years ago to fulfill a degree requirement, but while in class all I could think about was how inappropriate the professor had been. From name calling to sexual innuendos, he pretty much covered all of the bases in class (unfortunately he covered them with dirty pictures). At one point in time one of the students had even been asked about her sexual preferences, because the professor had decided it might be interesting to find out. On another occasion he told a female student that she could call him “daddy”. I could provide more examples of the same type of behavior, but you probably get the gist of the professor’s attitude.
After turning in our first paper (which had been the only assignment), I received a seventy percent. It has been the only paper I have never earned an A on thus far. When I asked the professor to explain my grade, he could not clarify why I received my score, and he finally decided that I repeated myself too many times within the work. However in my defense, when a summary is required at the end of a paper, it’s hard not to present the same ideas again. After telling him I thought I deserved better he commented that he would not reconsider the grade. I then told him I knew a plethora of teachers who could vouch for my “A” work, and he retorted he did not believe I was capable of said feat.
Needless to say I ended up dropping this ethics class, even though we had been about twelve weeks into the semester. I had to declare why I was dropping the class, and I gave a thorough explanation why. The professor received a copy of the letter a few weeks later, and has yet to make eye contact with me when I see him. Likewise he also started treating a few students who I am friends with differently. Perhaps he should consider his own ethics next time (or registering for the core values class).
It was the instructor’s duty to introduce and influence his students in an ethical way, however he failed to do so. Therefore how are the students under him supposed to be held accountable for their thoughts and eventual actions (if they have never considered ethics before)? Perhaps instead of counting on a college course to provide such information or guidance, we should consider inspiring ethics earlier than this. Instead of waiting, we should take the time as adults to address the situation at hand. The sooner a young person can distinguish right from wrong and true from false, then perhaps they will also go from being lost to found.
Unethical decision-making at a young age could be a considerable problem in the near future. In fact I have already seen several instances with young people who have totally disregarded ethics, as they behave in a poor (and sometimes criminal) manner. If we are to save the next generation of people from being such deviants, perhaps we should begin to instill values into them at a younger age. Likewise, as a parental source or family member who guides a child, perhaps they will do the same with their child, and that child’s child after that. By creating a tradition of strong values in a family that can be passed down, I have no doubt we can curb the distasteful views some young people have today. We shouldn’t have to rely on a warped professor’s bastardized vision to guide our children. We should do it ourselves. By committing ourselves to being moral people, and by teaching our children at a young age to uphold their value, perhaps we will see an eventual change to a more virtuous society.
In my experience, I cannot say that ethics classes have been a positive experience. Likewise I do not think I have learned much from them either. I believe I had most of my values instilled in me as a young child thanks to my family, however I cannot help wonder how many people are not as privy to such ethical decisions making skills as I am. With this in mind, I wonder how some people are even capable of completing high school, or entering college level classes. Furthermore, when it comes to teachers going against the values their very class should be teaching, I must ask, “who watches the watchmen?”