Sunday, May 6, 2012
At the outset of this posting, I thank Lisa for her thoughtful postings giving MOJ contributors and readers news about the Religiously Affiliated Law Schools biennial conference just concluded at the Touro Law. I hope in the context of this posting to offer several of the thoughts I presented on Friday morning at the final session dedicated to ethics and bringing religion into the classroom. I also thank Robby and Patrick for their postings of today and yesterday, for their respective thoughts have a bearing on what I shall attempt to address today, viz., the university as the classroom of human life.
Today’s world of higher education in the United States—and perhaps most of the rest of the world—is geared to success. Now, there is nothing wrong with that per se depending on how the word success is defined, understood, and sought. There is evidence, however, that success means personal success with little regard for the welfare of others. It is not that this concept of success is directed to destroying, marginalizing, or reducing others, but it is not really designed to take stock of others and how the positions and needs of others relate to the subject. In spite of the ever-present rhetoric of “diversity” and “pluralism,” these and other buzzwords that frequent and are typical of the vocabulary of the academy of today are a disguise for a particular way of thinking that is designed to “empower” (another axiom of the contemporary academy) the individual. What the objective of this “empowerment” is usually is unclear. If one is empowered, what is it that one is to do other than whatever it is that one likes to do?
While public service is often heralded and promoted in “service learning” that has become another feature of contemporary education, the nature and extent of what constitutes public service is often determined by the autonomous individual (usually director who has some kind of “expertise”) who has been empowered, through leading and living “an extraordinary life,” to decide what the public needs regardless of whether this is beneficial or detrimental to the common good.
What is missing from all of these shaping factors of the “good education” are crucial elements of Catholic social thought whose benefits are not restricted to Catholic thinking and institutions: (1) the inviolability of the human dignity that belongs to everyone; (2) the common good as defined by the inextricable connection of the righteous life well-lived by everyone (and I do mean everyone) in cooperation with the destiny of everyone to do the same; (3) the idea of solidarity which underscores the common good; and (4) the cultivation of the cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude or courage, prudence, and temperance or forbearance. Unfortunately, too many members of the mainstream contemporary academy respond to these elements as I have proposed them as old fashioned. The fact that these elements also undergird much of the development of western law and legal theory is oft forgotten in most law school—to say nothing of undergraduate—education of the present day.
I suggest that a fundamental problem that challenges education today, regardless of the level and the subject matter, is the way in which thinking is encouraged and directed. The method of objective and authentically critical reasoning that has been indispensable to legal thinking in the past is being pushed aside by the subjective methodology endorsed by the “mystery of life” passage from Casey v. Planned Parenthood and largely endorsed in the larger view that education must be tailored for the “unique mind.”
In the context of the law and legal education, the objective that the “is” of the current moment is preferred to the “ought” of universal truth can then lead to the further subjective approach which confuses the “ought” with the “is.” For the subjective mind, the “is” becomes the only reality with which any person need be concerned. This subjective reality, moreover, is not the objective reality that must be sought, understood, and comprehended; but, this does not matter because the emphasis of education founded on autonomy and “empowerment” and little else will spend little if any time searching for something which may well be not only objective reality but also objective truth.
While thinking is pertinent to all disciplines, it is crucial to legal reasoning. The method of thinking critical to the law needs to be objective, and it must be formed by two important factors. The first is that the human being is an intelligent being. The second follows: human intelligence is capable of comprehending the intelligible reality that surrounds us which then leads to wise, prudent, and just decision-making. This does not mean that a perfect understanding will necessarily result nor will the best decision follow, but it does mean that the understanding that follows will be objective thereby getting the society involved closer to the truth of the matter and justice that is required.
I think that there is another problem about subjectivity that is deleterious to the education process but which is typically used today as the standard for determining who teaches and who speaks at institutions of higher learning in the present age. While there are many ways of explaining this standard (such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “contemporary,” etc.), it seems to follow whatever currency is strongest in the contemporary culture. So when contemporary culture endorses certain views regarding important matters that deal with human sexuality, the meaning of human existence, and the authentic nature of the human person, any view that does not correspond to the standard of the contemporary culture is either dismissed as irrelevant or branded as madness.
One more problem is the collaborative approach to education so frequently encountered today in educational institutions of many levels. I hasten to add that collaboration is important in human existence and must therefore be learned and perfected, for collaboration is necessary for achieving the common good. However, collaboration has largely come to mean in educational contexts the need to arrive at a consensus. Since the dominant milieu in the university of the current age is one that holds and promotes the view that all positions are equally meritorious (even though they are not), collaboration is the name given to determining what the lowest common denominator is in order to reach a conclusion and decision. When this is the reality of collaboration, then the ability to recognize and foster the truth, the beautiful, and the good is often the unknown victim of the sacrifice necessary for collaboration, that is, consensus, to be the goal.