The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity
Perry Glanzer begins his ambitious and stimulating book with a story that is both uncannily prescient and deeply disturbing. He tells us that the impetus for his work dates from the 1990s when he spent an extended period of time in Russia and Ukraine studying post-communist moral education. Again and again in Russia, teachers confessed, with a surprising degree of candor and humility, that they were “looking for moral answers right now because we do not have any” (ix). These confessions led to Glanzer’s discovery that moral education in Russia had inadvertently “reduced the humanity” of the students by increasingly narrowing the scope of moral formation and edification by ignoring more and more of the virtues that make for human flourishing, that enable human beings to live well qua human beings. Though the confessions of his Russian colleagues antedate the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine by almost thirty years, the moral wilderness that they recount has now yielded horrifying results that can be seen every day around the world in graphic detail.
Glanzer would be the last to suggest that there is a simple and straightforward causal connection between what he witnessed thirty years ago and the Ukrainian war the world is now witnessing; however, he would surely argue that there is a significant connection between the two phenomena. Moreover, his book presents a compelling argument that higher education in the United States is on precisely the same course with respect to moral education that he had witnessed earlier in Russia. “Similar to Soviet moral education,” he writes, “American moral education has reduced college students’ humanity but in a different and more gradual way” (xv). When we turn in this country from international to domestic news, this alarming claim would also seem to be at least partially vindicated. In sum, the stakes of Glanzer’s argument would seem very high. As a result, he promises in a subsequent book to provide a constructive alternative to higher education’s presently distressing moral course. My guess is that he will retrieve, reinvigorate, and rearticulate for our present-day pluralistic context the Reformed vision of William Ames and Peter Ramus, a robust articulation of moral formation that never successfully made its way across the Atlantic during the seventeenth century.
Glanzer’s story of the steady diminishment of human identity spans almost a half of a millennium from the mid-sixteenth century to the present time. Though he concentrates on the period beginning with the maturation of American colleges and the concurrent rise of the modern research university to the present time (roughly 1860-2020), the immense topical and chronological range of his work requires some kind of schematism to organize his material and his argument. He therefore focuses upon human identity, an idea that is now very much in vogue, and its fragmentation into its several aspects over time. Thus, after an initial failure of the Puritans to build upon a strand of their tradition that offered a robustly Christian education that cultivated a fully-orbed human identity, higher education in this country elevated in succession one aspect of human identity over all of the others and sought, with mixed success, to foster those virtues appropriate to each fragment in turn. Thus, human identity was reduced for a time during the nineteenth century to gender identity (what made for the ideal virtuous gentleman and the ideal virtuous lady?—not the same thing, as it turned out), which in turn was reduced to student identity (the concentration on the virtue of honesty), which was then reduced to professional identity and finally to political citizenship, to “education for democracy.”
Glanzer readily admits the limitations of his schema, noting for example the significantly varied and sometimes contradictory understandings of “identity” even as he uses the term in a way that invokes all of them. He also acknowledges that in actual practice most schools have attended, to some extent, to all the fragmented aspects of identity at all times, though within radically changing institutional contexts and through a bewildering variety of practices. He notes, for example, the significant rise, beginning early in the last century, of the whole Student Affairs or Student Life Division of university administration, along with the rise of the student affairs professional. This was, of course, part and parcel of the faculty’s abdication of any responsibility for moral formation of students and was pivotal to what Julie Reuben called, in the subtitle of her seminal 1996 book The Making of the Modern University, “the marginalization of morality in higher education.”1
Quite often the weaknesses of good books are but the defects of their virtues. The Dismantling of Moral Education at times evinces this proverbial truth, given its inventive but problematic organizational scheme. The best illustration of the way in which Glanzer’s schematism instructs and misleads at the same time is his treatment of what he regards as the most recent, most important, and possibly the most destructive of the successive “reductions” that his story recounts. Over the course of the last generation or so, students have had their identity as human beings collapsed altogether into their identity as political citizens and the several public virtues that good citizenship requires. This reduction has been in turn reduced further to one premier virtue, the virtue of social justice, understood in a particular way, that stresses values like inclusivity and diversity. Glanzer refers to the larger ideology behind these reductions as “Meta-Democracy,” which is “not simply a political philosophy but a comprehensive approach to education and life” (115). Some of the most incisively critical parts of Glanzer’s account of how higher education has reduced the human identity of present-day students can be found in his story of how a fairly narrow conception of social justice came to justify and explain so much of college and university curricular and co-curricular activity today. Indeed, the strengths of Glanzer’s whole schematism with its organizational principle of identity reduction derive from its faithfulness to the clamorous discourse that has so come to dominate the contemporary academy: identity, diversity, inclusivity, intersectionality, social justice, etc.
Nevertheless, Glanzer’s discussion of Meta-Democracy sometimes exhibits the very synecdochical flaw that he elsewhere laments: he takes a part of the “education-for-citizen- ship” discourse for the whole of it. The present mania for a particular kind of social justice has been from the beginning and still remains embedded within a much broader and richer discourse about the relationship between liberal education, character formation, and citizenship. Glanzer is well aware, as evinced by his notes, of the work and the publications of the primary institutional embodiment of such advocacy, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). But he seems less aware of a whole range of important writers and thinkers like Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity or Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition or Bruce Kimball in Orators and Philosophers who sought, during the last thirty years, to connect, in deep and searching ways, the best of liberal education with a much more capacious understanding of democracy.2 All of these latter accounts, along with most of today’s college and university promotional literature, suggest that the arts, skills, and virtues essential to liberal learning—critical thinking, close reading, good speaking, honesty, interpretative resourcefulness—are also essential to good citizenship in a democratic republic. This tradition of reflection goes back at least to Cicero and remains very much alive today. Indeed, much of the concern over the decline of liberal education, especially in the humanities, has arisen from the conviction that liberal learning at its best cultivates both the full development of our humanity and the virtues required for good citizenship. Had Glanzer analyzed the whole discourse of Meta-Democracy through a discussion of debates beginning around 1920 and extending to the present about the undergraduate curriculum (what should be taught to whom, when, and why) he would have focused upon the broader rather than the narrower version of education for citizenship. He instead concentrates exclusively upon the regrettable turn of student affairs professionals to developmental psychologists as their primary guides to the moral formation of students before they then sought to control all the elements of student civil society like clubs, service organizations, intramural sports, etc.
Glanzer’s book is the most recent and, in many ways, the most original contribution to what has been for at least thirty years a flood of books, like Julie Reuben’s, that either lament or celebrate what is taken to be on all sides the gradual abandonment of moral formation as a vitally important part of a university education. (Stanley Fish has been the most fervid defender of the view that colleges and universities should not be about the business of character formation except for instilling the virtue of honesty).3 The most recent outbreak of this worry and the predictable arguments on both sides of the issue took place over the last two years in the latest installment of the century-long debate over so-called Great Books courses. The renewal of this interminable quarrel was occasioned by the nearly simultaneous publication of Roosevelt Montas’s Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for A New Generation and Arnold Weinstein’s The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing.4 The emotional heat generated by that conversation resulted largely from its being yet another instance of the very concern that animates Glanzer’s book. Could Great Books courses be the last bastion of faculty responsibility for the formation of a full human identity in their students? Does reading great literature make you a better person? The vehement tone of both the affirmative and negative responses to these questions demonstrates the urgent and immediate pertinence of The Dismantling of Moral Education. But the war in the Ukraine is a much more dramatic and serious testimony to the importance of Glanzer’s work not only in this book but also in his extensive writing on higher education. We should all look forward to his promised sequel, where he will offer a fresh and constructive vision of where we might go from here.
- Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
- Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Bruce Kimball, Orators & Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York, NY: Teachers’ College Press, 1986).
- Stanley Fish, Save the World on your Own Time (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Roosevelt Montas, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021); Arnold Weinstein, The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022).