Cultivating the Virtue of Immodesty

In June 2018, an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Women, Own Your ‘Dr.’ Titles” commented on the explosion of the #immodestwoman hashtag following Fern Riddell’s documentation of her experience of adding her title (“Dr.”) to her Twitter handle.[1] The hashtag itself was derived from one of Riddell’s Twitter critics who censured her for being “immodest.” Claiming the criticism as a badge of honor, a host of female Ph.D.’s began to add their titles to their Twitter handles and celebrate this addition under the banner #immodestwoman.

I would like to add my voice to this celebration. Having been raised in a relatively conservative, religious environment, I was taught from a young age about the importance of practicing the virtue of “modesty.” In most cases, this term was used as a synonym for “frumpy clothing for women.” Despite this connection between modesty and clothing, the recent #immodestwoman discussions suggest that modesty in the academic world is likewise disproportionately regarded as a virtue for women to pursue. Drawing on Valerie Saiving’s work on theological articulations of sin, I would argue that virtue should not be defined as abstention from pride but rather that immodesty should be upheld as a virtue for people of all genders.

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Academic Knowledge and Democratic Practice: Dewey’s Case for Accessible and Interdisciplinary Education

In the chapter “Search for the Great Community” in The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey establishes a case for interdisciplinary, accessible education to foster forms of public democracy and social unity. According to Dewey, knowledge for democratic practice must be simultaneously interdisciplinary, accessible, and socially applicable.[1] Accessibility, here, is two-fold. First, it means that knowledge should be created in a way that it is understood and applied in many ways. Second, it means that knowledge should be able to be equally grasped by and distributed across the social body that helps create it. This schema ensures that forms of knowledge are publicly generated, owned, and useful in many applications. Based on this description, for knowledge to be useful for democratic practice, it must not be limited to a specific domain, terminology, or institution. Interestingly, knowledge circulated in the modern academy is diametrically opposed to Dewey’s calls. The academy—especially elite, “prestigious” research institutions—produces knowledge that is technical, overly-specialized, and unequally distributed.

The knowledge circulated by academic institutions is mostly inaccessible and oftentimes useless for social application and democratic theorizing or organizing. Conceptual frameworks that situate the world are accessible only to individuals in distinct academic disciplines, who are housed within academic institutions. Dewey argues that “the backwardness of social knowledge is marked in its division and insulated branches of learning. Anthropology, history, sociology, morals, political science, go their own ways without constant and systematized interaction.”[2] Here, knowledge is inherently social, meaning the public helps create it and can equally access it (read: accessible and open), and it is capable of being applied in a breadth of situations (read: interdisciplinary and flexible). Conversely, the knowledge circulated by the academy is factional and specialized rather that interdisciplinary and open.

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Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea (Installment 2)

In the first part of this article, I highlighted the problem of turning higher education into merely a means to the end of economic success. In this second part, I focus on resources that can help academics send a more balanced message to the public about the value of higher education.

In the 19th century, John Henry Newman famously and valiantly defended the ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, education as its own end. He did so in his book The Idea of a University, a classic that ought to be required reading for those working in higher education today. Newman says of knowledge that it is “valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end” (Newman, 79). He adds that “there is a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does” and that the “object” and “mission” of the university is “intellectual culture” (Newman, 85, 92).

Newman’s defense of the intrinsic value of education has roots in Western culture’s deepest religious and philosophical traditions, and its echoes can be heard in many discussions of the university. Its influence is evident in Robert Maynard Hutchins’ wonderful 1953 essay The University of Utopia (where, by the way, there are no accrediting agencies). In this essay, the former president of the University of Chicago writes that “Art and thought are the highest activities of man. They are the aims of life, and society should be organized to promote them first of all. It is a sign of a backward civilization when in a financial crisis the first thing the community thinks of is to close the art museums and reduce expenditures on education. A civilization without art and thought, or one that does not value them, is a pack rather than a civilization” (Hutchins, 17-18). In order to have a civilization rather than a pack, the US must have strong and independent colleges and universities—places where people, first and foremost, think (Hutchins, 87). Given the calls by conservative politicians to slash public funding for the arts and higher education, Hutchins’ defense of both is perhaps more timely now than in his day. Continue reading

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Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea

Higher education has a marketing problem—one that is partly of its own making.

We all know that the public relations situation of higher education is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the general public continues to believe in the value of higher education. A 2015 survey indicates that 95 percent of the population finds it “very important” or “somewhat important” that a person has a degree or other professional certification beyond high school.[1] A more recent survey from the civic enterprise organization New America shows that 75 percent of the American public agrees (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “It is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.”[2] That percentage goes up to 84 percent among Generation Z (those students just about to enter college or in college now).[3] The information here is good news. Americans think that what colleges and universities have to offer is of value, and they want it for themselves and for their children.

On the other hand, why Americans want what higher education is selling is both interesting and somewhat problematic. What Americans mean by “successful” tends to be simply financial advantage. In the Gallup-Lumina survey, 70 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that having a degree or professional certification beyond high school is “essential” for getting a good job.[4] The Freshman Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute shows that the views of the typical first-year student strongly align with those of the general population. While recent years have shown a slight decline in the percentage of students who cite economic reasons for pursuing a college degree, the numbers still are quite high. For 2015, 85.2 percent indicated that getting “a better job” was a “very important” reason for pursuing a college degree, and 69.9 percent indicated that making “more money” was a “very important” reason.[5] Continue reading

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What’s the Cost? Impacts of ‘Free Speech’ demonstrations on College Campuses

On October 28, 2017, the National Socialist Movement, the League of the South, Vanguard America, and the Traditionalist Worker Party, planned two events entitled “White Lives Matter” in Middle Tennessee, near the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.[1] These groups all participated in the Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right” rally earlier this year, and because of the violence and racist ideology expressed at that event, members of the campus community were justifiably concerned.[2] These planned protests unquestionably impacted MTSU, and this article explores several aspects of the impact these protests had on campus.

Of course, white supremacist action on or near university campuses is not new. Richard Spencer is currently on what he describes as a college tour, with stops at the University of Virginia and the University of Florida, leaving tumult and lawsuits in his wake.[3] The University of Florida spent upwards of $500,000 on security upgrades on campus and in the surrounding areas in preparation for the rally there, and the Florida government declared a state of emergency ahead of the speech.[4] In addition, various white supremacist organizations are recruiting on college campuses.[5] Taken together, these actions leave college campuses in the unfortunate position of determining how to allow for the free expressions of ideologies that conflict with the values of many members of the campus community, while maintaining the safety of all students. It is no surprise that the message that these groups tout is taken by many students as an affront to their very identity. Continue reading

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“Plays Well with Others”: Can Games Achieve Learning Outcomes?

“Let’s kill Jesus!”

Such words are not often heard from evangelical students at Christian colleges, and such playfulness is not usually associated with the sort of serious academic encounters that are expected in higher education. Yet, I listen to my devoutly religious students utter words like these every semester in the context of “The Jesus Game,” an elaborate role-playing game in which students encounter the familiar story of the Gospel of Matthew in a new light. Continue reading

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Democracy and Higher Education in Indonesia and the United States

I was a visiting research and teaching scholar at the Graduate School of the Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia during the fall semester of 2014. I co-taught 50 students in four graduate-level courses, including a Ph.D. seminar that explored whether an undergraduate Liberal Arts curriculum would empower Indonesian higher education and enhance Indonesian democracy.

We started our seminar with a discussion about cultural differences between Americans and Indonesians. I suggested, “Americans smile a lot.” My students objected, “Indonesians smile a lot” and “joke often.” As an example, my students joked that Indonesian higher education offered more “freedoms” than American higher education did: “Americans have copyrights; Indonesians have the right to copy.” I asked, “What are major differences between Indonesian and American cultures?” Without hesitation, my students responded, “Americans have rights. We have values.” I protested, “Americans have values, too.”

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Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

I agree with Eric’s observations and will just add a few of the lasting impressions the seminar made on me. As a doctoral student in the Philosophy of Education who focuses on higher education and spends a considerable amount of time reading critiques of higher education, I found the seminar both illuminating and heartening. It was illuminating because I am not privy to what goes on in faculty and administrator meetings, nor have I had extensive conversations with many faculty and administrators about their views on the current state of higher education and their work. Eric and I weren’t sure how many people would attend, so we were delighted that the seminar was filled to capacity (we even had to turn people away). More importantly, it was clear from the enthusiastic participation of nearly everyone in the room that the issues we were discussing are a pervasive concern among faculty and administrators from a variety of institutions. I sensed that the participants were hungry for a space to not only voice their frustration and discouragement but also to work toward solutions. A number of people came up to us afterward, expressing deep gratitude and an interest in working with us to continue the conversation. Continue reading

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Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

First, I certainly felt like everyone agreed that there is a gap between what the public thinks of higher education (for example, a credentialing service that helps to prepare young people to make money) and what academics think of higher education (for example, educating for life-long learning, the production of knowledge, preparation for active citizenship, etc.).

Second, I think there was agreement that the blame for this gap (if, in fact, someone or some group should be considered blameworthy) is not simply the public—that, in fact, both sides are responsible for the gap. For example, one of the reasons that the public might think of higher education as merely a credentialing service for future income is that those of us in higher education have sold what we do in exactly that way: think of the famous and often-cited statistic that college graduates will make a million dollars more over their lifetimes than non-college graduates. There also seemed to be a general recognition that even though higher education is an unusual business, it still is a business of sorts. Academics often fool themselves into thinking that higher education is somehow outside the “real world,” but they could serve themselves well by learning more about the financing and fiscal realities of higher education. A deeper understanding of the “business” of higher education might allow academics to understand better the public’s perspective.

Third, while there certainly was a fair amount of frustration about the gap between the public and academics, I did not sense hopelessness. Participants believed that those of us in higher education could do something to address the gap. In particular, we need to do a better job of providing a more compelling narrative about higher education (including historical perspective and data)—particularly with regard to its public goods and not just its private goods. Participants also recognized that part of their work must be with students—particularly helping them understand and articulate what they are learning beyond the specific content of courses. In many ways, our graduates should become the most effective ambassadors for a more robust public understanding of higher education.

In short, I was heartened by the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants. I also thought that the kind of conversation we had would be one worth continuing at future professional meetings but especially on campuses across the country.

Editors’ Note: This essay is the second in a series of pieces reflecting on a 2017 AACU seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.” This session engaged some important questions about the perception of Higher Education among various stakeholders. We hope you enjoy the sustained conversation.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Eric Bain-Selbo is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University-Kokomo. He also is the Executive Director of the Society for Values in Higher Education. His research spans across the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies, focusing primarily on social ethics, political philosophy, comparative religion, cultural criticism, and issues in higher education.


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Higher Education and the Public

For the last several years, the Society for Values in Higher Education has sponsored a seminar session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU). We have explored topics such as the role of higher education in the moral development of students, the implications of free college tuition, the pedagogy of “wicked problems,” and many more. At the 2017 AACU meeting, we facilitated a seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.”

Our proposal (co-authored along with D. Gregory Sapp) described the session this way:

Skyrocketing tuition increases and a soft job market for college graduates have led to increasing public skepticism regarding higher education. Such skepticism has encouraged state legislators to continue to slash financial support for higher education. The loss of financial support leads to further tuition increases. What we have is a vicious cycle of skepticism and economic exigency (both for institutions and for students and their families) that leads to public distrust of higher education. If there is any hope of restoring significant public trust in higher education, academics and the public must have a “meeting of the minds” in regard to the purpose or value of higher education. The facilitators will lead a conversation about what we as academics value in higher education (particularly liberal education) and how to bridge the gap between what we value and what the public expects.

Approximately 25 faculty members, administrators, and even a higher education reporter joined us for an engaging conversation. We decided to structure the conversation around a special issue of The Chronicle Review from November 11, 2016. That special issue was looking at various questions about the central problems facing higher education today. Higher education experts and leaders answered the questions in short responses (no more than a sentence or two). We were particularly interested in two questions that seemed relevant to the perception and/or value gap between higher education and the public: What is the biggest misconception the public has about higher education? What is the biggest misconception that academics have about higher education?

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