Tuesday, January 5, 2010


What do we want from our students? Like parents, teachers should want something better for their students - to want their students to exceed their own achievements, by whatever corresponding measure of success is applied along the path they choose. And we hope that, in choosing their path, we have helped to teach them how to think, to reflect, to find answers on their own, and to make moral and ethical decisions. That, above all, is important: we want our students to be decent people.

But education can sometimes result in conceit and arrogance. As a teacher, one’s heart sinks to find a student, possessed of a little learning, who thinks that he’s smarter than everyone else, or even that his superior education has endowed him with moral superiority. This quality isn’t confined to the educated, of course — there are droves of know-it-all drop outs — but, lest we forget, it was educated men who invented Auschwitz and the atomic bomb.

In the postmodern university, where a soft relativism is the order of the day, it is unfashionable to speak of teaching moral or ethical lessons to students, even though questions of how we ought to behave are central to whole fields such as literature, philosophy, and comparative religion. After all, the relativists insist, who is to say what is right or wrong? But allow me to say, once again, that to claim that there are no absolute moral standards is to make an absolute moral claim of the strongest kind. And, moreover, by their own standards the relativists must acknowledge that the opposing claim, that certain moral truths are timeless and unchanging, must be as valid as their own.

The suggestion is sometimes made that historians have no business asking moral questions about the past. But in what school of moral philosophy is the boundary between past and present also a barrier against moral judgment? If I committed murder yesterday, I can hardly defend myself today on the grounds that the murder is exempt from moral scrutiny because it happened in the past. A spurious argument, you say? Very well, then. At what point, then, does the past become such a barrier? After a week? A year? A decade? A century? Give me a number, fellow historians. At what point in the future will historians shrug and say, “Not for us, students, to judge the Holocaust, only to understand it.” One hopes that the answer is, “never.” Alas, in many classes it is already happening.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by a sense of moral outrage! (The Calvin and Hobbes cartoon expands if you click it. No copyright infringement is intended on this not-for-profit blog.)

Alison Hunter said...

Sometimes I think that ethics is ALL we should teach. Well, okay, not really - but some days, it's tempting!

Cmille said...

From my (limited) experience, most students are willing to make moral judgments about the past.

The challenge in my case then is to show them how to evaluate the past without being ahistorical or unfair to their subjects.