“The larger the number is, to which that private affection extends, the more apt men [and women] are, through the narrowness of their sight, to mistake it for true virtue.”1 – Jonathan Edwards
“We are looking for moral answers right now because we do not have any.” The comment startled me. During various trips to Russia and Ukraine in the mid-90s for my research on post-communist moral education, I heard this sentiment from many teachers in the seventeen different cities I visited across the former Soviet Union. I did not expect this comment; however, from the chair of the social philosophy department at one of the top Russian universities in 2001.
But during my semester teaching in the social philosophy faculty at RUDN University in Moscow, I found that the demise of communism in Russia had brought a unique form of academic honesty and humility. What struck me most forcefully was the open confession by faculty that they were searching for moral answers. Although American academics rarely claim to have found truth, they usually do not confess to have a lack of possible answers. In contrast, Russian professors lamented the ideological vacuum left by the fall of communism.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the first journalist who broke the story about the Holodomor, the Stalin-caused famine in Ukraine that killed over three million, spoke these prophetic words written in the 1930s, “I felt the gloominess of Soviet Russia; of Marxism; of the Theory. There is heavy gloom everywhere. Faces are gloomy—not because of hunger but because the Theory itself is oppressive. Marx had a heavy enough soul. You see him with Lenin and Stalin—they are a Trinity. Those who believe in the Theory…should they fail, then they will leave a desert behind them, a vast desert.”2 Into the ideological wasteland left by this trinity, I came to teach a course on Western Social Philosophy.
I used two books recently translated into Russian to teach my course, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, the classic defense of liberalism and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a famous critique of what liberalism has done to contemporary moral language and virtue. I taught Rawls first and MacIntyre second. In the end, I realized the order in which we examined these books reflected the problem with Russian society and politics. Leaders tried to establish liberal democracy in a society that was already “after virtue.” Soviet education had dehumanized and undermined the moral fiber of Russian society.
The dehumanization of communism did not come from its failure to teach ethics. Indeed, the Soviet communists gave much more overt attention to moral education than Americans in our education system during their time in power.3 What contributed to the dehumanization, however, had to do with the reduction of moral education to a focus upon three particular human identities—a person’s economic, national, and professional identities. Soviet educators sought to create excellent citizens, workers and professionals.
By focusing only on these identities, they reduced the moral frameworks and content to which they could appeal. Thus, the major virtues taught in Russian society were patriotism, respect for government authority and hard work. They neglected concepts that related to the dignity of humanity or virtues such as humility, forgiveness, and servant leadership (a moral phrase that one of my good Russian friends and professional translators said had no adequate equivalent in Russian).4 Yet, when the people lost their national and economic identities as Soviet communists, they suddenly found themselves without an identity that could guide their moral affections. Moral chaos ensued.
Thus, no one needed to convince my students that there was not only a crisis in moral language or reasoning but also a crisis in moral behavior. As we discussed MacIntyre’s famous closing warning about a new dark age and his claim, “This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time,”5 many of the students laughed out loud. They believed that what MacIntyre said was already true in Russia.
They also knew their country had been ruled by moral barbarians and desperately needed virtue because as one Russian colleague told me, “Communism almost killed our society.” Again, in this regard, Malcolm Muggeridge proved a prescient prophet. He recalled in his journal:
I tried to explain to [Pat Sloan, an English communist] why this place [Russia] seemed so evil to me. Evil is the only apt word. Evil because there is no virtue in it; and because it has utterly failed… In a Marxist state, evil and failure are the same. To say Russian Communism is evil is not to say that Capitalism is good. But evil, in the Government of a Communist state, has more immediately serious consequences because there are no safeguards.6
My Russian teaching colleagues who had spent time in the United States on a Fulbright observed the same point about moral safeguards.
He then shared this short story to illustrate his point. He said his wife, who was a visiting professor at an American university, recently visited an American home for Thanksgiving. In the course of the conversation, she expressed genuine surprise at how much pleasure this American couple took in being moral. He said that he found this true from his own experience visiting America. He cited the American proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and made this observation: “I notice that you actually have fewer fences than we have in Russia. What you have is fences in your mind. This is the key difference between Russia and America, and it allows you to have more freedom.”
There were many professors who now wanted both the internal moral safeguards and freedom for themselves, their students, and their country. When I handed one of the older professors a Russian translation of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, she asked what to my American-trained in ethics mind seemed like an odd question, “Will this help me teach students to be more virtuous?” My initial internal response was, “Well, that’s not exactly what ethicists attempt to do in America”—a thought that made me wonder what American collegiate moral education had done to my thinking and what it was doing to American students.
My new book that came out this month, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity, tells the story of what American higher education has attempted to do and continues to try to do to the identities, and thus the moral thinking, affections and behavior, of young emerging adults.
Similar to Soviet moral education, American moral education has continually reduced college students’ humanity but in a different and more gradual way. Even worse, unlike the post-Soviet professors mentioned, Americans still think we have comprehensive moral answers because the political ideology guiding our moral education has not yet failed. Thus, we continue to rely on our political identity and a distorted political narrative, what my book calls Meta-Democracy, to guide our moral education.
The first part of the book explains through historical examples that the reason why contemporary American moral education reduces our humanity stems from the way moral educators have dealt with moral pluralism. Whenever American moral educators faced moral conflict, which at the root usually involved conflict over the moral implications of different identities, they solved the problem by discarding any moral reliance upon that identity.
Yet, they also never really became Kantians who sought to examine every moral situation from a standpoint of universal objectivity disconnected from all of our other social identities. One might call them half-hearted Aristotelians. They still always attempted to ground students’ pursuit of moral ideals and virtue in another fragment of human identity. Not surprisingly, these efforts often foundered as scholars used one identity fragment to replace another identity in the revolving prioritization of various human identities. Over time, Americans could only find commonality based upon a limited number of agreed upon identities.
The second part of this volume’s thesis is that this reduction has also led to limited means by which to find moral integrity among our various identities. As Christian Smith noted, we now represent humans in our social science theories as “cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles.”7 Consequently, we have been distorting and corrupting moral education and diminishing ourselves for quite some time. Ultimately, we turn to the identity and story we have in common, that of being American citizens, to try to find our moral way. Unfortunately, we have elevated our political identity and story into our primary story, making it our meta-identity and metanarrative—what I call Meta-Democracy. In a second volume, coming out in the next year, I propose a way to rebuild a vision for moral education based on a more robust understanding of human identity.
The blog post is reprinted from the Preface of my new book, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity. Copyright© Rowman & Littlefield, 2022. Used by permission.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 88.
- Malcolm Muggeridge, Like It Was: The Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge (New York: Marrow, 1982), 30.
- Urie Brofenbrenner; Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R (New York: Pocket Books, 1973); Susan Jacoby, Inside Soviet Schools. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).
- Perry L. Glanzer, The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2002).
- Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 263.
- Muggeridge, Like It Was, 48.
- Christian Smith, What is a Person? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 3.