Truth may not be taught, values and morality have nothing to do with intellect, and character development is an extra-curricular activity. Welcome to the philosophy of the modern university, the training ground of tomorrow’s leaders, and America’s cultural authority on knowledge.
Enter Professor Dallas Willard, a kind and thoughtful Christian philosopher who has been teaching at the University of Southern California for the past forty years. Professor Willard is a breath of fresh air to students passing through USC as he encourages rigorous thinking, and honest reflection about the worldviews that color the bulk of what goes on in the classroom today. tothesource asked Julia Thompson, a student who has taken several of Professor Willard’s courses, to interview him the day before this year’s graduation on May 13.
tothesource: Tomorrow is graduation here at USC and I imagine you’ve been to your share of ceremonies and heard lots of commencement speakers! You’ve often said that character and morality are not considered to be valid parts of a university education so it seems curious that, upon graduation, we students hear a lot of speeches and comments urging us to go on to live “good lives” as “good people” and “good citizens” now that we are equipped with college degrees. What sense can we make of this?
Dallas Willard: Two things. Number one the issue of being good people leading good lives is so important that it cannot be ignored. When it comes time to address students at commencement even those who claim that they do not believe in moral instruction, or passing down values through education, cannot help but address the importance of being good people and leading good lives.
The second thing is that the leaders in the university do not understand what has happened; they are unaware of the split that has developed between the content that faculty present as knowledge, and notions of morality, character, and values. While leaders and faculty may operate day-to-day within the university setting, observing the subculture and interacting with students, in many cases their thinking has not explicitly crystallized around the fact that morality has been totally cut out of education. Derek Bok (former president of Harvard University) commented, upon hearing of Harvard graduates’ junk bond frauds, that the church and families don’t seem to be doing too well with character education–perhaps the university ought to take a stab at the task? Within today’s university, such a suggestion sounds foreign, novel, and controversial. The university’s heritage in classical colleges, teaching about truth, beauty, and goodness seems to have been forgotten.
tts: Has the university abandoned “capital T truth”?
DW: Yes! The university has explicitly abandoned the project of the search for Truth–despite remnants that suggest the contrary such as Harvard’s seal that sports the Latin word for truth (“Veritas”). In fact in an address to entering freshman at the University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer made it clear what were and what were not the goals of the educational institution. The goals were: to encourage critical thinking, to broaden intellectual horizons, and to encourage self-awareness. The NON-AIMS were equally explicit: “Not only is there a powerful imperative at Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, but the university also makes very little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed it is a remarkably amoral institution” (149, Mearsheimer).
tts: Does this sentiment permeate secular universities in general?
tts: Given that the university rejects the role of working out and teaching morality, how can it defend its steadfast dedication to “diversity, tolerance, and radicalism”? You have mentioned that these values can have no basis apart from the truth of Judeo-Christian roots. How does the university defend this seemingly self-defeating stance?
DW: This position finds footing in politics. Instead of coming out explicitly as moral values, “diversity, tolerance, and radicalism” sneak under the radar labeled as “political issues” legitimized by the “will of the people”. In today’s culture it is easy to assert that diversity is simply a positive political development in a sophisticated society that is in tune with the desires of the public. But is that enough of a basis for a pluralistic society that expects all people to be treated with dignity, regardless of differences? Test it out: Look for a nation without Christian roots that truly supports diversity, undergirded by a sense of essential human dignity. You won’t find one.
tts: From your upcoming book, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, is there any advice that you would offer to university graduates as they move into the world of work, and begin to build lives in today’s culture?
DW: Try to understand character, human character because that’s what it’s all about. We don’t have to have every underpinning worked out completely in order to start living good lives. Observe people! Observe people who manage to happily do what’s right. As you live and watch, believe what you see. Don’t believe high-blown theories that try to explain away what you learn to be true in real human life.
If you are intrigued by a particular theory, take the time to see how it plays out in peoples’ actual lives. If you find Nietzsche’s assertions appealing, look at Nietzsche’s life–a consistent expression of his ideology. Nietzsche experienced the tremendous burden of trying to make sense of everything through the self alone, and he died alienated, crazy, and broken.
When new information comes about that seems to change the face of everything, keep in mind that nothing has fundamentally changed about the options available to human beings in this life. The supposed change that blew Nietzsche’s mind, a new theory of cosmic evolution, turned out to be a far-fetched, unsubstantiated claim! In reality, nothing fundamentally has changed.
tts: What advice would you give to parents and churches as they prepare to send youth off to universities across the country?
DW: Be encouraged, and encouraging about the fact that Jesus is present on the college campuses. Jesus is the smartest mind in any and every field, and in him are contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Jesus, despite any voices to the contrary, is the “Big Man On Campus”! A student sitting in a philosophy class listening to the teacher rant on about the absurdity of the Christian faith may be encouraged by an anecdote such as this: Walter Martin tells the story of Sydney Hook lecturing against Jesus in a class at New York University. With a moment’s reflection, answer the question: “How many people have died for the sake of their dedication to Sydney Hook?”
In memory of Professor Dallas Willard
September 4, 1935 – May 8, 2013