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What We Are Dealing With Here

"Every thinking man, when he thinks, realizes that the teachings of the Bible are so interwoven with our whole civic and social life that it would be literally impossible for us to figure what life would be if those teachings were removed. We would lose almost all the standards by which we now judge both public and private morals; all the standards to which we, with more or less resolution, strive to raise ourselves”
- President Theodore Roosevelt

Ol’ Teddy got it half right. The only part he got wrong was the critical part, about it being literally impossible to figure it out. We didn’t have to figure it out, we just did it. Now there appears to be scholarly evidence of our success at doing the impossible. Here’s to us.

"If it Feels Right..." by David Brooks, NYTimes

For us as educators, it explains a lot about why things seem to be harder in the classroom. Our students today are just as smart as they used to be. They just don’t have the same moral compass previous classes had.

Just today there were two incidents that appear to lend agreement to this study.

1) While trying to fix a printer problem in the student computer lab, I came across a log entry where one student was logged into a computer and tried to print out a report with a filename that contained his partner’s name. It is possible that the paper’s author was using the computer his partner was logged into and printed his own paper from a flash drive or something. But it sure looks suspiciously like he took his partner’s paper and modified it to look like his work. We will watch the situation closely when they turn in their papers. Unfortunately, this is not as rare as I would like, even though we explicitly tell them their reports must be their own individual work.

2) I had an email interchange with a student who had legitimate equipment problems in the lab last week. The problems led to him calculating that his sample had a negative mass. He emailed me to ask about it. I told him that we had found a way around the problem while the new part was being shipped, and that he definitely should describe what happened in his report.

In a follow up message, he then indicated that his real question is, can he have sample data or does he have to redo the experiment over again?

I couldn’t believe it. The lab class is set up so that students have two lab sessions per experiment, so they can do the experiment the first week, analyze their data, and come back the next week to fix any problems and collect better data. Even though it shouldn’t need to be, the reasoning behind this setup was explicitly communicated. And we do need to explain that, and that it is our expectation that they take advantage of this setup; otherwise they will just take whatever they get the first session and make do so they can have a free period every other week.

These are chemistry and engineering students. They have chosen a major directly dependent upon experimentation to learn about how the world works. In that world, there is no sample data. If the experimental apparatus fails, it must be repaired and the experiment repeated. If this is too onerous for them, they need to choose a different major.

Some may question whether this is a moral issue or not, given the topic du jour. Absolutely. It reflects an attitude of laziness over discovery, convenience over professional commitment. As an upperclassman in his early 20’s, he should be beyond even asking a question like this. He should have outgrown that in junior high. Hence my response:

“That question should never come out of your mouth. Think about it. If you have to ask that question, you also need to ask yourself why are you here at all?”

It is more than a maturity issue. Someone once said, “Character is what you do when no one is looking.” We need to depend on our college graduates to know internally and firmly what is the right and moral thing to do on most things.

Yes, he did ask, rather than just choosing the lazy way out. But if his moral center is so fuzzy at this point that he couldn’t figure that one out by himself, then on what other issues is he fuzzy on?

I hate ending on a negative note. So I will say that I do have many very good students, and hopefully, these examples are the exception. The ‘moral’ of the story is that the lessons in civics, ethics, and morals are never over. We all need to continually reinforce them in all disciplines, and we need to live them ourselves. The fabric of our culture can be self-repairing, if each of us threads watch ourselves and aid each other. Radical individualism makes for unweaving rather than weaving.


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