Teaching Values

Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt school of critical theory said that the main goal of education should be to assure that the holocaust is never repeated.    Adorno and his colleagues were Jewish academics who were forced to flee Nazi Germany, and were shocked at the way in which their country fell into such barbarism.   How could this happen in Germany of all places — the country of the most advanced science, culture, and philosophy?

Andorno recognized that education should not just focus on methods and facts, but also values.  An education devoid of value development creates a population of individuals able to skillfully manipulate data and people to achieve their personal ends while rationalizing the human cost and consequences of their choices.    Instead of wisdom, we get sophistry.

Universities in general either push a mix of social political correctness (have minority students, use politically correct terms, and show sensitivity to ‘differences’) and practical political conformity (teach established theories, do not rock the boat of corporate sponsors, and buy into the theories that support the country’s elite structure).   It’s not like university professors are in a conspiracy to promote the corporate elite.    Rather, the way we’ve learned to teach and educate, by dint of the state of the disciplines (especially in social science), works against value education.    Rather than really questioning the nature of power and manipulation in the system students seek to become one of the powerful manipulators themselves.   Their goals are not malevolent, they simply believe they need to “play the game” in order to achieve the change they desire.  To be sure, there are always radicals out on a limb — the Noam Chomskys and various socialists or anarchists.   They are easily defined as an academic margin — the ‘fringe left.’

I take Adorno’s call seriously.   In my “World Politics” course we look at holocausts that have happened since Auschwitz, and how a world that said “never again” seems to have no problem allowing it again and again.   We examine how Communist utopianism led to genocide in Cambodia.   We study the Rwandan genocide and the heroic efforts of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who led the UN mission in Rwanda.   The world watched a genocide unfold at a pace of killing faster than the holocaust, with UN observers right there telling the media and the world the gruesome details of what was happening.   The world yawned and looked away.   Students confront these cases having to think through difficult questions — should we have intervened?   But why should we ask a 20 year old American to get mixed up in someone else’s conflict?   What was the role of colonialism?  It ends up being a much more difficult problem than it originally seemed.

We also look at the world political economy that way, seeing the severe problems of the industrial West alongside the existential threats in the third world.   Students often respond with a mix of shock, anger and surprise that things like this go on in the world.   They’re not just learning theories about politics, but thinking about core human values.

My first year seminar “Germany Between the Wars,” covers the roaring Weimar mix of parties and crises to the rise of Nazism.   Students confront the fact that during the thirties the Nazis appeared successful; they can actually understand how the Germans would support them.   Many admit they might have too, knowing only what they might have known by 1936 or 1937.   They confront the power of manipulative propaganda, and then compare that with the way talk radio or the advertising industry in the US operates.   The realize that the mythic version of WWII told in the schools is only one side of a complex story.   They also learn and compare the war time experiences of Sophie Scholl and Traudl Junge, and explore why two women born the same year could think they were doing the right thing, but only one had clarity of vision.

The goal of the whole course is only partially to learn about German history (we explore art, science, music and politics during this era), but also to shake students up to realize that Hitler’s rise was not one of a maniac simply grabbing power, but a sophisticated movement which at one point appeared peaceful, successful and (to Charles Lindbergh and Joe Kennedy) a potential model the US could learn from.   To assure no more holocausts we need to learn that the danger from something like Nazism is that one only realizes too late how evil it is unless you have the moral and intellectual tools to see beneath the delusions they create.   That requires a willingness to question authority, not take claims by government (whatever party is in power) at face value, and avoid the emotional appeal of opposition movements claiming there are “conspiracies” to try to somehow destroy the country or its core foundational values.   It takes work and skill to avoid being manipulated.

In general, every course tries to do something to get at the human dimension of the relevant political issues and get students to empathize as well as intellectually understand a situation.  In The Politics of Developing Countries we look at how social science theories and the media ignore the role of gender and the ethical/human dilemmas the experiences of women raise.   Why it is that our current theoretical lenses leave these experiences out — what does that say about us and our values?    Ethics and values come as much from empathy than intellect; it entails a complexity that defies any clear set of rules.

So I like to think I am teaching in accord with Adorno’s dictum.   Yes, students learn political science theory, relevant facts, various authors, and the like.   They emerge prepared for law or graduate school, or any of the other professions they may choose after college.   But I hope that in some way my teaching tries to promote the development of critical value processing for students of all political, ideological or religious stripes.   I am not concerned about those who go through a difficult process of valuation and evaluation, and ultimately choose differently than I do on the issues of the day.  I am concerned about those who get manipulated by the media and political leaders into thinking they are doing what is right and just, without the will or capacity to critically reflect on their choices and beliefs.

Luckily my colleagues across the campus seem to share these values, recognizing that education is not just teaching students how to win, but how to make choices they can be proud of.    The need to help students “make good choices” is just as relevant in college as in Kindergarten.

  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on November 30, 2009 - 09:48

    Ah, but you are talking about ethical and moral questions in a context (academia) that has largely rejected the belief that such questions can be answered definitively. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I enountered many professors who were moral relativists and even a couple who were nihilists. Somehow, though, they knew that a woman’s right to choose was sacrosanct and that greedy capitalists were responsible for most of the ills of the world. Such inconsistency! Such hypocrisy!

    If I wanted to play the game with you that was played against me many times, I would ask: Who are you and Adorno to say that the Nazis were wrong? Who are you to say that the Hutus who perpetrated the Rwandan genocide were wrong?

    So, when you discuss ethical questions in your class, what is your basis for determining the answers (or helping the students determine them)? And how would you answer a student who said, “I don’t see what’s so bad about it!” Which set of values do you hope to instill, and on what basis do you know that these are the right ones?

    I’m not trying to provoke an argument. I’m sincerely curious, given what you have written before.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on November 30, 2009 - 13:33

      Thanks for the question, it’s actually central to some of the research I’m doing. I think the problem is that enlightenment reason — or western philosophy in general — has a big gap: skepticism ultimately can defeat pretty much any argument (and skepticism can be skeptical of itself). You cannot prove with reason and logic that Nazism was wrong, you are led almost by necessity to moral relativism.

      I think, ultimately, that the “other side” of being human — sentiment and empathy — are the keys to making value judgments. There may be some help there in psychology (Adorno is famous for his work on the “Authoritarian Personality”), but ultimately the reason the world opposes holocaust and Stalin’s purges is because such things are seen as disgusting and revolting. That isn’t an intellectual formula, that’s a human reaction. Communists could use bureaucracies to enslave millions because it made rational sense within the framework they were using, and dictators of all stripes used bureaucracy (Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’) to de-personalize and de-humanize their atrocities.

      But, since the answers don’t come from reason alone, but reason with empathy/sentiment, and since that leaves room for individual variation, the result is that it seems impossible to teach one set of proper values. There are common themes across religions, cultures, and similar reactions of humans to various actions, and there is likely room for cultural variation in all of this — and those are the issues that get complicated. To me, it’s a “victory” if students at least get to that level of thinking about an issue, regardless of where they end up. So if a student asks “what’s so bad about it” when looking at, say, Stalin’s 20 million killed in purges, I’d simply express my horror at the human cost, and think about what this meant for people and families. But ultimately if someone hardens their heart and refuses to empathize, that’s their problem. I hope that if they learn to think about the human side and take the need to take values seriously (I believe ethics permeates every choice we make in life) they’ll bring that with them into life.

  2. #3 by Mike Lovell on November 30, 2009 - 16:59

    Interesting Topic. when it comes to how we view certain world events and atrocities through differnet lenses is something I was struck with this weekend. I was watching a documentary by Stacy Peralta, “Bloods and Crips, Made in America.”

    In one segment of an interview an old time gang member (who is by now in his 50s) brought up that in the 40 years of this existent gang formation within the the South Los Angeles area, they had seen over 15,000 gang related deaths. More than in the long running conflict in northern Ireland. And yet, while people are to put focus towards coming to a solution fr the latter situation, most people are ignorant of, or choose to just ignore that of the former.

    And I wonder just why that is? The UN or the US can get involved in “genocidal” issues abroad, but we see almost entirely no work, except through private sources for intervention in L.A. (with very little to no governemtn help, outside of more police and more jails/prisons).

    Any thoughts on that particular thought process we engage in here at home versus abroad?

    • #4 by Scott Erb on November 30, 2009 - 17:05

      Actually, I think the same thing happens abroad. Ireland and Yugoslavia got a lot of world attention, Rwanda was ignored, and few people even realized there has been a major conflict in the Congo, killing more than any war since WWII. Crudely one could call it racist — blacks killing blacks isn’t as noticed. But that seems to me a bit unfair — the media covers some things and not others, people simply don’t read as much about some conflicts as others. I’m not sure why. Perceived importance to people, ability to empathize, political connections? When I co-taught a “Children and War” course we did a unit on Chicago gang violence. Students really got into that because they were so shocked that such things happened in the US.

  3. #5 by classicliberal2 on December 1, 2009 - 00:11

    Wow, this is one of which there are so many dimension, it’s hard to know where to start.

    Stalin is credited with a comment that goes something like this: A single death can be a tragedy; a million is just a statistic. People who have never experienced anything like that have no real frame of reference for that scale of horror. What passes for “moral outrage” over such things is, far too often, merely a content-free intellectual exercise, usually with very different motives than genuine “moral outrage.”

    The Khmer Rouge, for example, was an “official enemy,” so officialdom seethed with “outrage” over their atrocities in Cambodia that killed hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions. This, however, came at the end of the U.S. attack on Southeast Asia, which killed far more–perhaps as many as 2-3 million, without a trace of that “moral outrage” from that same officialdom, the one that that was, in fact, waging that campaign. Then, the Reagan administration adopted the Khmer Rouge as “freedom fighters,” and suddenly official outrage shifted again.

    That gets to another element of such ethical considerations; the ever-tiresome American Exceptionalism. I don’t suppose it’s necessary, among reasonably intelligent readers, to detail why this concept destroys every ethical consideration without any corresponding benefit. There are certainly more case studies than can be easily listed. Saddam Hussein went from a hated enemy in the ’70s to a treasured ally under Reagan (when he headed one of the worst human rights abusers in the world) to an official enemy again mid-way through Bush Sr., when all of the atrocities he’d committed with U.S. aid and complicity were suddenly used against him. The U.S., the “bastion of democracy,” violently overthrew democracy in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and waged terrorist campaigns against it in places like Nicaragua. And so on. When the U.S. government–the biggest dog in the pound for more than 60 years–considers itself exempt from the rules, the rules cease to have any real meaning. They’re just more propaganda.

    So ingrained are those notions of American Exceptionalism that even pointing out some of the things about which I was just writing draws angry retorts to those whose souls have been lost to that particular ailment. Trying to raise such matters with students in an educational setting will get one branded as an anti-American radical, or some other similar epithet. These things are often difficult to even discuss in an educational setting, which should be one of the places where they’re MOST heavily discussed.

    I suppose the other matter you raised could be called, with a slightly different emphasis, Nazi Exceptionalism, the misguided notion that German fascism was so exceptionally evil that any comparison to it, or analysis of parallel developments in its history and our own are, by definition, ludicrous, baseless, and completely irresponsible. Godwin’s Law does have a place, and I understand why it became so widely accepted, but it’s also–potentially–one of the best means ever devised of learning absolutely nothing from the past, which makes it a handy tool, indeed, for exponents of notions like American Exceptionalism (because the success of such notions is predicated on distancing them from things like Nazism, which are almost universally recognized as a black evil).

  4. #6 by renaissanceguy on December 1, 2009 - 07:34

    Classical Liberal, I rarely find myself agreeing with you, but I do partly on one point and completely on another.

    I agree with you that American Exceptionalism is a problem that Americans need to overcome if we are ever to be a nation with a conscience. However, I also think that a reverse Exceptionalism is just as bad. It bothers me when people, especially academics, say or imply that the United States is the only evil power in the world or that our actions are worse than anyone else’s. It’s simply historically false. That’s when I would accuse somebody of being anti-American–when they vehemently point out the atrocities that have occurred in our country but casually dismiss or minimalize atrocties committed by other countries.

    It is certainly easy and popular in some circles to hate (well, to speak hatefully of) the United States and to praise other countries from which people are dying, literally, to escape. Most of those refugees have their sights set on America. Why is that? Because it is the WORST country in the world? I don’t think so.

    Your point about Godwin’s Law is exactly what I think. I think that the fallacy occurs when people rashly say that somebody is exactly like Hitler or that a particular government action is exactly the same as actions by the Nazis. I don’t think the fallacy occurs when people say that certain actions have some similarity to actions by the Nazis, and I think it is necessary to point out such things so that we avoid going down such a road (or can back up, if necessary).

    • #7 by Scott Erb on December 1, 2009 - 11:14

      I agree that American exceptionalism is bad in both directions. We are more like other countries than different; our best points allow us to be a place (like the EU) where people want to go to in order to escape oppression, and western civilization has achieved great advancements. I do think that Americans can be critical of their country’s acts without having to make comparisons to others. Sometimes a response to criticism of, say, US torture is to point to other countries and say “they are worse.” That’s like a child angry at being punished for playing a video game he’d been told not to saying “but Billy down the street smokes and shoplifts.” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean disobeying a parent is OK. We live here, and thus are naturally going to be critical of our country in comparison to our ideals, not to the status of other countries.

      The US is part of the West. I think the rock band Rush (Neil Peart’s lyrics) put it well:
      “It’s the motor of the Western world
      Spinning off to every extreme
      Pure as a lover’s desire
      Evil as a murderer’s dream”

      We share with Europe western strengths and weaknesses, and as a super power, these get particular expression. Now we are in relative decline as a superpower, and I hope that we use this crisis to play to our strengths rather than our weaknesses.

      • #8 by Mike Lovell on December 1, 2009 - 15:34

        Leave it to a member of Southern Canada, which we call Maine, to break out lyrics from Rush!! LOL, just kidding….great band!

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