That Nameless Virtue

Universities cannot guarantee the moral worth of their graduates

In a little more than a month, Harvard will graduate yet another class of seniors and commend them to prestigious positions in regions far-flung across the globe. Even with the economic downturn, no doubt this class—like all before it—will eventually fill the highest echelons in government, finance, law, and academia.

In conferring the degree, embossed with the university seal and confirmed by the president’s signature, Harvard thereby will stake its reputation on the intellectual fitness and aptitude of each recipient. Few indeed would doubt the natural intelligence, raw talent, and competence of most, if not all, of those in line for a sheepskin. But whether the last four years have augmented or molded those natural capacities in which newly arrived Harvard freshmen abound remains an open question.

Complaints about the Core and the nascent General Education—its lack of common requirements or a coherent, unifying philosophy—are rehearsed often. And the demise of a potential Great Books track within Gen Ed called further attention to this problem. The prevalence of grade inflation and the existence of trendy but “soft” disciplines in the humanities and social sciences continue to portend trouble to those concerned with Harvard’s intellectual rigor.

But these standard jeremiads against Harvard’s curricular vacuity, as just and true as they are, only extend so far. For one cannot seriously contest whether Harvard graduates are brilliant, well read, and extremely likely to succeed at whichever tasks they choose to apply themselves. Yet, despite this, one cannot but have serious reservations about these graduates’ cultivation, moral virtue, and character, over which Harvard as educator claims no responsibility.

In a kinder and gentler era, universities sought—as many of this region’s more ancient preparatory schools still ostensibly do—to educate not only the mind but also the “whole person.” For, in those days, Harvard and others cared not so much that their graduates were successful at their chosen professions as that they were decent, upstanding, and honorable gentlemen who would not bring shame upon their almae matres by their ill conduct.

The notions of honor and character to most Harvard students sound old-fashioned, if not completely absurd. Yet, at one point, such concerns formed the center of a truly moral education. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics listed “greatness of soul,” or “magnanimity,” among the principal moral virtues—as the “crown” of the virtues, in fact, without which the other moral virtues cannot properly exist. For one who exemplifies all the moral virtues—an ideal toward which men of a previous age continuously would strive—proudly disdains base and trivial matters and values not material goods as much as the well-deserved respect of a good man. The magnanimous man, who seeks great honors while deserving them, necessarily is also a good man, the ideal gentleman.

Neither Harvard nor contemporary university pedagogy esteems this old ideal. The intellectual fads that currently enthrall academia long ago abdicated any concern with ends: Education, under this regime, is merely a question of means. Students indeed may write well and argue their points persuasively and powerfully, but toward which goal and on behalf of which argument they may exercise their faculties are questions never asked. Scientific training, assisted by advanced technology, points toward an ever-expanding horizon of information to be gathered and knowledge to be pursued, but with little concern for what purpose such research ultimately may be used.

Universities like Harvard still purport to teach the liberal arts, those studies worthy of a free man. Such a curriculum once itself implied an ideal, an end. The liberal arts, indeed, have had as their object to cultivate the “gentleman,” in the sense that the word implies a distinction, a high standard that presumably all, and probably most, can never attain—and not as we often use the term today, to welcome every male individual who passes through the door of a public restroom. A liberal education aspires to make men’s minds liberal, worthy of being free: those who are free from acting according to base motives, such as personal gain, and can practice the virtues for their own sake.

Modern college curricula have no regard for the virtues. The wisdom offered in classrooms, if not, as in the admittedly “applied” sciences, purely instrumental, is then essentially a curiosity, since it has no relationship to the good life. And, as such, graduates will be left uninstructed as to how they ought to use, or how they ought to act with, the knowledge they have gained and the natural intelligence they have sharpened over the last four years.

The lack of a moral ideal in education bodes especially problematic in the case of Harvard students, who, already confident and ambitious, deserve to have their talents and energies directed toward a suitably noble end. Those students, without due guidance, understandably will concern themselves first with gainfully employing their knowledge and skill for either money or power, and only secondarily, if at all, with the responsible and respectable ideal that their university and most in their generation abandoned long ago.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.