In my spring term of freshman year, I chose to take an Ethics class as a free elective. It turned out to be the most fulfilling class I have ever taken, as it challenged me to read and understand theories of different philosophers and discuss many ethical situations. For my final paper, I had to find a contemporary ethical issue and present it through the eyes of some of the discussed philosophers. I know this blog post has a different vibe from my other ones, but I felt the need to share it with you, because the matter in question has been rising a lot of questions in my head throughout this past year of school. Furthermore, I encourage you to leave a comment with your opinion on the issue, as well as on my essay! I would love to hear different views, and maybe start a debate around the topic.
As an international student coming to the U.S., I was exposed to a lot of culture shock: different interactions, food, laws, work habits, fashion style, and the list can go on. However, the biggest culture shock I encountered happened in the classroom setting, and it goes beyond that to the way American students view education.
The story that made me want to write this paper happened at the beginning of my freshman year when, while in a class that was almost at its end, students vigorously started packing their things and left the room while the teacher was still speaking. First, I thought there was some sort of emergency that had made them rush out of the class. Soon, I realized it was just the American culture acting in such a disrespectful manner towards one of the aspects of life that matter the most to our development, education. Six months later, and I still was not able to understand why students felt so entitled to rush and disrespect their teachers. Every ending of a class was another chance for me to be shocked by how students treated their education. Coming from a country where, at the time the teacher comes in the class, you must get up and say loudly the proper salutation, I was shocked to see that students were not even saying “Hello” when entering the class.
Being truly disturbed by this situation, I started analyzing it from a more profound point of view. I chose to go to one of the professors and ask them if they thought this kind of behavior is normal. I was told that it’s part of the present American culture, and that ten years ago it was different. What made it change? What is so different about today’s generation that makes it so opposed to the idea of being in school and getting an education? The students’ attitude is more than leaving the class before the teacher is done talking. It makes it seem like they are going to college only because they are forced to do so. It shows that they are seeing college as a necessity, and not as something enjoyable. Personally, I believe their attitude towards education is not the right one and I see it as a first step into the way they are going to live their lives after graduation. I analyzed this issue from an ethical point of view, and I came up with three different philosophers that state theories which reinforce my claims. Education is important and I believe it should be treated with respect and dedication, but what would Aristotle, Kant, and Mill say about this?
First, Aristotle would be a huge advocate for the European educational system. In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, he talks about the power of habit (or “ethos”). He believes that the character of an individual is developed from childhood by reinforcing behaviors that demonstrate respectful attitudes which, in the end, lead to a “greater good”. According to Aristotle, “It makes no small difference, then, to be habituated in this way or in that straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference”. Thus, the rigorous system of rules imposed in the European classroom is mandatory for creating well-behaved students that will show respect for their teachers. By promoting minor acts such as simply caring for your teachers, addressing them in a more formal way, and paying attention to the classes you are taking, the attitude towards education will experience a shift, becoming more positive. Aristotle believes that you “become just by doing things that are just”, thus you should act in a manner that you act knowingly, by choice, and not randomly. Aristotle’s belief would be that your actions speak for yourself, therefore you must honor them, even if it might not be pleasant. By being forced to practice a behavior that takes you out of your comfort zone and challenges you to confront your natural laziness for the sake of recognition, knowledge, and growth, you will develop the power of advancing socially and intellectually, getting closer to achieving the good, an unattainable concept at which everything aims.
Second, I will begin Kant’s analysis with the Categorical Imperative, which states that you should act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Thus, students should ask themselves “Am I willing to be treated without respect by the people to whom I would share my knowledge? Am I willing to put so much time and effort in order to receive nothing but a lack of interest?”. If their answer is negative, then their maxim cannot become a universal law, and the Kantian process would make them realize the consequence of their actions, thus stopping them from behaving in that certain way. In addition, referring to the part of moral philosophy concerned with deontology, Kant would believe that showing respect to teachers and valuing education is part of our duty and our work towards the “kingdom of ends”, an ideal society where everyone is rational and acting ethically. In his view, the moment students treat education, thus professors, simply as means of achieving a career, they lose the joy of purely enjoying the process. This is well described through the humanity formula: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as means.”
Last but not least, the need to educate society is present in Mill’s work, which promotes the achievement of higher faculties and the avoidance of a lower level of existence. In his utilitarian view, it’s essential to have the people educated, and the perfect world would be one in which there is free universalization of education. Therefore, in order to get to the ultimate end of “an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality”, you have to make people conscious about the more elevated faculties available to them and make them strive for mental cultivation. Mill would believe that the students’ attitude is not following the Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that the right actions are the ones which promote happiness, and by happiness he refers to the higher pleasures which can only be accessed once you cultivate your mind. Possessing such a mind will make students find infinite sources of interest all around themselves, whether it is in art, nature, poetry, or other noble pursuits, thus achieving greater happiness.
All things considered, American students’ attitude towards education doesn’t promote superior achievements nor getting closer to the highest good, and it’s not a maxim that they would be willing to universalize. This goes beyond their studies to their way of living, in a culture that makes the majority of them not satisfied with their work, while feeling pressured to follow certain steps, without thinking about enjoying the process. By showing a sense of superiority derived from the idea that everything is a business – in the given case paying for college means they can act however they want – they deprive themselves of the cultivation of nobleness of character, therefore from achieving the desired state of happiness. Personally, I believe that all the philosophical concepts mentioned in this paper should be applied to the way American students are educated: enforcing a respectful attitude since childhood, being taught to think about the universalization of their maxim, and being more exposed to the benefits of mental cultivation. By doing this, students would not see college just as a necessity anymore. They would actually find pleasure in being educated, eventually being able to enjoy listening to their professors until the class is done.