Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education
Perry Glanzer’s Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education is a sequel to his earlier 2022 book, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity.1 Dismantling offered an extended account, largely historical but occasionally theoretical, of how American academia, especially during the period from 1860–2020, steadily diminished human identity from a fully-orbed sense of what it meant to be a human being to merely gender identity or student identity or professional identity or political identity, taking one part or dimension of a human life for the whole of it.2 As Glanzer puts it more succinctly in Identity Excellence, “Whereas American higher education used to be about acquiring wisdom from mentors in multiple areas of human identity, it now largely focuses on moral learning in two identity areas: our professional and citizenship identities” (111). His entire two-volume project is ambitious in scope and rhetorically adroit. As a result, he manages to address successfully both the secular academy and the church-related academy. No small feat. However, the primary rhetorical virtue of Glanzer’s more recent book is also the source of its few problems.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I clarifies and elaborates the relationship between moral excellence and identity, demonstrating that every human being has multiple identities, some ascribed, others chosen, requiring a multi-contextual and interdisciplinary analysis of identity excellence. Part II in part recapitulates the argument of The Dismantling of Moral Education, outlining both the genesis and the character of the problems besetting contemporary moral education in the academy. Part III will and should receive most attention, since here Glanzer fully delivers answers to the several questions he raised at the end of the first book and provides a fairly elaborate, constructive proposal to address the present, dismantled moral education offered at American colleges and universities.
Curricular revolution emerges as Glanzer’s major corrective to the moral disarray of higher learning today. Though he focuses upon general education, he admits that “we need to reform the whole system,” along the way usurping academic departments (115; 119). He characterizes all efforts, including his own, fundamentally to change general education as “idiotic” (I would call them utopian); nevertheless, he sets forth in some detail a sequence of interdisciplinary courses built around what he calls the “Great Identities”: excellence in relationships, including friends, neighbors, and enemies; student excellence; excellence in self-care; racial and ethnic identities; religious or secular identity; environmental stewardship; gender and sexuality; family, singleness, and marriage; stewardship of culture; citizenship; and finally, as a capstone course, excellent human beings (121–130). Though one may quibble with some of the details, the whole of this general education program does indeed address all of the matters of identity that students do and should care most about in a way that should maintain their interest and deepen their understanding.
Glanzer acknowledges that there are already courses offered at several colleges and universities that would fit neatly and effectively into the curriculum he is recommending. His description of some of these as well as his occasional provision of sample reading lists add meat to the skeletal structure of the general education program he sets forth. However, the proposal is a bit thin on pedagogy (how should the course be taught exactly?), assignments and evaluation, and program assessment (how does one first determine and then measure competencies?). These omissions, though understandable, are sometimes unfortunate. For example, by focusing upon content and overall conception, the entire project of education for identity excellence can seem exclusively intellectualistic, addressing thought but not action, the head but not the heart. Though it seems altogether proper to focus primarily upon the cultivation of the mind in an academic environment, if the aim of higher education is to cultivate identity excellence, some attention to habituation through action seems essential. Should some of these courses include a service-learning component or at least a set of reflective practices to give substance and shape to the theory? Glanzer stresses the importance of practices, mentors, exemplars, and virtues throughout the book, but his main emphasis is upon the achievement, mainly through study and reflection, of moral expertise, the favored concept of the literature that most closely informs his own theory.
That literature is largely social-scientific, especially psychological and sociological, although he also draws upon philosophy, literature, and theology. His work is genuinely interdisciplinary. There are times, however, when that argument would have been complicated in a salutary way by more extensive engagement with recent developments in philosophy that pertain directly to it. For example, Glanzer treats the importance of exemplars largely as instructive rather than inspirational or motivating, as merely giving life and flesh to the more abstract moral and ethical ideals that students should study. But an entire sub-field of virtue ethics, exemplarism, has over the course of the last generation argued that exemplars are not only essential to moral formation, they are the primary sources of it. We are, says Linda Zagzebski, in her 2017 book entitled Exemplarist Moral Theory, more formed by what we admire than by what we desire.3 This theory has of course been challenged; nevertheless, the whole philosophical discussion surrounding it carries enormous pedagogical implications, and in my view promotes exemplars to one of the top two elements on Glanzer’s long list of the elements of moral formation.
In brief, Glanzer’s constructive proposal would return higher education to what he suggests it once was, namely, “acquiring wisdom from mentors in multiple areas of human identity” (111). The major problem with this endeavor is one that he explores extensively in chapter 3 of part I (the most important chapter prior to part III), namely the problem of ordering our several identities for excellence. For first of all, what it means to be an excellent accountant or soldier or teacher does not always comport with what it means to be a good parent. Conflicts arise among the several areas of human identity and the virtues of one domain are not always easily transferable to another one. Glanzer’s discussion of this problem is intricate and often incisive, and most of that discussion anticipates what he will return to in his concluding chapter, namely the importance of a meta-narrative, the Christian story in particular, to give each person’s multiple identities order, meaning, integration, and overall purpose.
The last chapter on the critical importance of the Christian meta-narrative might have been expanded, since it offers many sound and timely theological correctives to certain pervasive and pernicious American mythologies. First, contrary to views that prevail in American higher education, we are not self-made men and women. Instead, we are created in the Creator’s image, a fundamental identity that we ourselves neither imagined nor made. This basic fact grounds the claims that all human beings have equal dignity and that all are equally “gifted” in the sense that their identities were bestowed upon them first as a gift before they were elaborated through various endeavors. Second, teachers and students are worthy of regard, respect, and equal treatment on the basis of the dignity conferred upon them as part of the gift of life, not on the basis of their achievements within various shifting and socially constituted domains of identity.
The educational implications of these truths are immense, especially when the goal of education, on Glanzer’s account, should be the attainment of identity excellence. For example, God’s image, as revealed in Scripture and especially in the life and death of Jesus the Christ, provides a clear vision of what it means to be fully human, what it means to integrate all of our various identities into a whole in conformity to a moral and spiritual ideal. Moreover, the virtues that become paramount for the achievement of identity excellence are those that imitate divine virtues, especially the virtue of self-giving love. In other words, contrary to Western classical understandings of identity excellence that privilege justice or wisdom, the Christian understanding of identity excellence privileges love.
Although the concluding chapter of Identity Excellence provides a fitting and often compelling conclusion to what should be regarded as Glanzer’s two-volume work on identity excellence in higher education, it might have been strengthened had Glanzer compared his own theological vocabulary to the one that presently dominates much of church-related higher education. That vocabulary includes primarily terms like vocation, character, purpose, and virtue with the central term, one with a much longer Christian pedigree than identity, being vocation. Over the course of the last thirty years, thanks in large part to programmatic initiatives funded by the Lilly Endowment, the idea of vocation as the conceptual space that draws together who we are (identity) and what we do (action in the world) has come to dominate the discourse of church-related colleges and universities, both Protestant and Catholic. And, of course, there are a number of striking parallels between Glanzer’s understanding of identity and a broader Christian understanding of vocation. For example, Glanzer speaks of our primary identity as a human being and our several secondary ones, many of them constituted by our society. Most Protestants have spoken since the Reformation of a primary calling to a Christian way of life and a secondary calling to work of various kinds. Glanzer’s vocabulary has the advantage of addressing a broadly secular audience, since identity is surely a much more familiar idea within the secular academy than the idea of vocation. Within the church-related academy, however, the opposite is true; therefore, some comparison of the two ways of talking about many of the same issues would have been appropriate, perhaps even required to round out the argument.
Here is but one illustration of how such an engagement between the vocabulary of identity and the vocabulary of vocation might play out. One of the primary benefits of the identity vocabulary is that it is thickly contextual, requiring careful and extensive attention to the rules, norms, expectations, and constraints of a wide variety of identities. And, following in a broad sense St. Augustine, the task for the Christian seeking identity excellence involves achieving a right ordering of his or her loves and identities. According to one strain of the vocabulary of vocation, however, such a right ordering, leading to identity excellence, may not be possible. Instead, according to Luther at least, we will meet crucifixion in our vocations, we will suffer from our efforts to practice self-giving love, and we will find that some conflicts among the requirements of our vocations as parents and/or children, citizens, and workers (the three primary vocations mentioned, similar to the three most frequent identities mentioned in Glanzer’s book) necessarily lead to tragedy rather than resolution.4
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum famously insisted that tragedy happens primarily to those who seek to live well. Thus, the great Agamemnon, because he sought to live well as both a king-commander and a parent was caught in a tragic situation in which there was no right ordering of priorities. He had to sacrifice his daughter so the Greek fleet could sail or spare her life, keeping the entire fleet grounded indefinitely. We cannot be at the emergency meeting to reconsider a tenure vote and our daughter’s final piano recital of the year at the same time. No meta-narrative could have spared Agamemnon or us in the example offered from tragedy and failure. Luther would have said that for that very reason we need forgiveness, not further training in ordering our priorities. For Luther, the excellent human life necessarily involves suffering. So, an engagement between these two ways of speaking and thinking about human excellence—identity and vocation—would lead first to the recovery of competing strains within the Christian tradition itself and second to the question of to what extent learning to bear suffering well should be essential to education for identity excellence.
One of the oldest conversations in the West began, in Plato’s Meno, with the questions of whether and how human excellence could be taught. Does virtue come by teaching, training (habituation), divine inspiration, or some other way, Meno asks Socrates. Perry Glanzer’s two-volume work has admirably advanced this inquiry in a way that is, unlike Plato’s inquiry, deeply attuned to its context. The two books should be required reading for all who care about higher education in this country and beyond.
- Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity (New York, NY: Rowan and Littlefield, 2022).
- See my review of Dismantling in Christian Scholar’s Review LII, no. 1 (Fall 2022): 119–122.
- Linda Zagzebski, Exemplarist Moral Theory (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).
- See especially one of the classic expositions of Luther on vocation, originally published in 1957: Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 29. Wingren, along with most Lutheran theologians, considers Luther’s understanding of vocation as but one aspect of his theology of the cross.
Thank you, Mark, for this substantial review of Perry’s two books about human moral identity. Both of you have bolstered ideas and practices related to Christian identity, where we live, breathe, and have our being. I appreciate references to the vocational initiatives that the Lilly Endowment has supported for more than thirty years, most recently through the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE). Perry investigates many questions that higher education leaders should consider in an era of “self-made” identity. Then you expand well on effective teaching and learning practices and Christian suffering when choices are complicated. All of us must think about these challenges as we engage students seeking an identity grounded in faith.