“Civilization is doomed unless the hearts and minds of man can be changed, and unless we can bring about a moral, intellectual and spiritual reformation.”


 – Robert Maynard Hutchins, Journal of Higher Education (1947)


    “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” This tit-for-tat describes the facile, unwritten social contracts that often develop between professors and college students. Does this tired compromise signal a stalemate in the struggle of college students and their teachers to eke out space for the demands on their time outside the classroom? If so, it is a sad surrender in the battle to foster academic and personal growth in higher education. George Kuh calls this campus stalemate a disengagement compact—a tacit agreement wherein professors say, “I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”[1] Like a prickly weed, this compact takes root wherever it can, and infiltrates our institutions, crowding out the covenant of learning that inspires the goals of our colleges and universities to nurture the personal and intellectual growth of the ascendant generation.

 In their new book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa tell the story of how the  disengagement compact is eroding the mission critical capacities of our colleges and universities to get their job done:

 [T]he future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively. Only with the individual mastery of such competencies can today’s complex and competitive world be successfully understood and navigated by the next generation of college graduates.[2]

 Academically Adrift serves as the latest signal flare to be launched over the drifting boats of academia, calling attention to the distress in institutions of higher education and calling for help to get them back on course.

 How did we manage to lose our way, and why do we allow so many students and courses to run adrift? There are many explanations, to be sure: economic pressures upon students and schools, overworked faculty, overhyped expectations that college should be a rite of passage for everyone in our highly competitive society, and the trend toward extended adolescence in our culture. I would like to set those issues aside for a moment in order to pay attention here to one specific fundamental factor which might deliver the deepest blow of all: the drift away from moral education as the raison d’être for a university.

 As Arum and Roksa note rightly, there has been a poignant shift in organizational missions away from “the responsibility of providing academic and moral guidance to young adults in their charge.”[3] To chart a course of personal growth in the absence of moral guidance is like sailing a boat without a rudder; there isn’t much you can do but to drift along wherever the tide and the wind carry you, hoping idly that all turns out for the best. But hope is not a strategy.

 George Marsden warns that this drift away from the mandate of morality in higher education has placed our institutions “in the midst of a moral crisis.”[4] This crisis results from the loss of consensus in our society that there exists some shared commitment to a greater moral reality that transcends tolerance of diverse ideas as end-all-and-be-all of moral virtues. We might as well say that the greatest value in the design of a boat is that it be rudderless, because after all, it matters little which way the boat goes, so long as it does not tack into any prevailing winds of cultural pressure. With tolerance alone as our guiding star, and relativism as our chart, we seem to have slipped quietly and subtly into the habit of launching students adrift on rudderless boats, hoping that no one will notice so long as the passengers on deck are having fun, and the faculty can be spared enough time in their cabins below decks to pay attention to their own pursuits.

 Here we see how the seeds of the disengagement compact have taken root and sprouted in the fallow soil of moral crisis. There is a vicious cycle at work here.  When an institution of higher learning loses its ability to steer a course of moral direction and nurture the ethical growth of its students, disengagement will emerge as the winning strategy. Since there is no longer any consensus to provide a unifying direction of moral development to be shared among faculty and students, individual preference becomes the default choice of moral virtues. Relativism trumps calling as the notion that ascribes ultimate dignity to persons and institutions called according to a higher purpose.  

 In the absence of a higher purpose (or teleological end or eschatological consummation, take your pick), the winning strategy is to merely give the students, parents and employers what they want. That’s common sense. This explains why students emphasize “social learning” (i.e., “fun”) as a priority, over and above studying (i.e., “work”).[5] So long as the job market is ready to accept the product, and the students are having fun, the institution can stay afloat and no one is the worse off. This pragmatic strategy of appeasement avoids the issue of moral direction and reinforces the vicious cycle which generates the disengagement compact between faculty and students.

 If permitted to go on long enough, this vicious cycle erodes the inherent capacity of the institution to nurture the moral development and integrity of students in a manner that would prepare them to take responsibility for the ethical dilemmas that await them. Moral education is no longer seen to provide a defining purpose worthy for its own sake, and ethics courses are viewed as add-ons to vocational degrees. In deference to the prevailing winds of relativism, rudders are seen to be unnecessary on the ship of higher education. Like religion and altruism, moral education is taken to be an evolutionary spandrel, which is no longer central to survival of the individual or to the social purpose of institutions of higher education. Let a thousand rudderless dinghies launch therefore, because no one cares where the ship was going anyway.

 This is why I teach ethics in a school that believes in the spiritual reality of faith, calling and the moral significance of personal integrity. Certainly, we face the same financial challenges and cultural pressures as every other university, yet we have a reason and a hope that transcends those pressures and gives us a rudder by which to steer.



[1] George Kuh, “What We Are Learning About Student Engagement,” Change 35 (2003): 28.

[2] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 31.

[3] Academically Adrift, 13. Arum and Roksa cite the analysis of historian Julie Reuben to make this case; The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[4] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 423-24.

[5] “Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience.” This is the well documented conclusion of several studies; Academically Adrift, 59.


Comments are closed.