Lunch with the philosophers

Yesterday I had lunch seminar at the Diamond Alumni Centre at SFU. The occasion was Douglas Todd was speaking on “Raising Tough Spiritual and Ethical Issues in the Classroom.” He covered a broad range of issues centred around what he called the moral collapse of the university. A couple of introductory points he touched on were disintegrating rationaliztion, training for technique based jobs, no opportunity to ask the deeper questions and so losing the “heart” of interdisciplinary education. He posits that students should be taught values and meaning so they develop moral reasoning and ethical maturity. What students are learning is “errant objectivity”. Pure objectivity is impossible, so he suggests pragmatic objectivity instead. Pragmatic objectivity is characterized by fair, accurate and balanced assessment. Which sounds fine, but who decides what is fair, how is fair decided? The accuracy of statements in an ethical conflict can be hard to pin down. Who can argue with balanced, but who calibrates the scale?

Douglass offered three suggestions for handling ethical conflicts:

  1. focus on people in their situation, respect their humanity and avoid generalizations
  2. avoid sweeping conclusions based on few events, back up statements with data
  3. let people speak in their own voice, dissenters are worth talking to

One point he made, that he attributed to someone named Taylor, was that everyone is a member of one minority group or another. That’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure what to make of it.

A point he made that I readily agree with is that stereotypes silence dialog. One of his objectives is to keep people at the table of dialog. That’s certainly a worthy goal. He believes that everyone is worthy of respect but no one is above criticism. He coined the term ethical imperfectionism to convey the idea that all of us are imperfect, yet we should keep on trying.

After Douglas’ talk two education faculty members spoke for about 5 minutes each in response. This was followed by a question and answer period. Near the end of the discussion someone (I regret I didn’t catch who) said “the ultimate expression of humanity is spirituality.” I’d turn that around and say that the manifestation of one’s spirituality is in one’s humanity. Marela Dichupa asked the question “Do we assume at the end of the day we will have consensus?” Douglas’ response was no, we shouldn’t assume that. I found that answer frustrating. I can see his point, but progress and relationships are built on concensus. I asked the question “If we don’t expect concensus, then what’s the point?” I think my frustration was showing a little bit. My sense of his response is that we should enter into discussions with the intent of concensus, but we shouldn’t expect that we will achieve it.

After the discussion, Paul Shaker, Dean of Education, spoke for about 10 minutes. I was very impressed with how easily and eloquently he described what was on his heart and mind concerning ethics in education. If I could speak half as well as he, I’d be pleased.

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