S. Schwartz: Should universities provide a moral education?

It was refreshing to hear Vice Chancellor of Sydney’s Macquarie University Steven Schwartz on ABC BigIdeas, discussing issues of morality and ethics in higher education. Morality, ethics, judgment and other such notions have for long been avoided in our universities, most of which have followed with an almost evangelical fervour the line of relativism.

Schwartz argues that, in universities relativism has had many adverse consequences--often discussed as separated issues (e.g. reduction of scientific credibility by society, poor or unclear curricula, economic imperatives leading universities decisions...). Schwartz manages to articulate the links between them. For instance, market interests leading research and lack of public confidence in scientific knowledge—consequently in scientific methods. His proposition has wide implications not only in regards to the objectives and approach of universities to teaching, education and knowledge, but also implications for each disciplinary field within academia, within which similar questions can be posed.
In the field of architecture, the vacuum left by scientific knowledge appears to have been filled by an emphasis on phenomenological experiences and expressions of inner thoughts detached from contextual knowledge. Many of these concepts, that fill the architectural design studio ‘discourse’ such as, ‘play’, ‘fun’, ‘scenarios’, ‘climate change’,[1] ‘sustainability’, ‘creativity’, ‘imagination’ among many others, are never explained, contextualised, measured or questioned.

Below I will be following this discussion and also counter arguments to Schwartz's contention.

"From its earliest classical origins, education's real purpose was to build 'character' so graduates could take up their role in their society and contribute to the good of everyone. But is that still the case or have financial imperatives had their way? After all, this year's budget papers did say that universities are here to grow the knowledge-based economy, that they are key contributors to economic progress. Commercial transactions have their own ethical imperatives and these are not always consistent...".

"...Publications are the coin of the realm in university scientific careers.
Some scientists agree to pose as authors just so they can add another paper to their CVs.
Clearly, we live in another time and another place from Salk.
The central ethical premise of universities has changed fundamentally.
The discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by the desire to exploit it.
Just think, can anyone today imagine a university giving a valuable vaccine away?
Hardly likely.
In fact, the government encourages universities to do just the opposite—to patent our discoveries and capitalise on our intellectual property.
One famous university has just spent a large amount of money on lawyers trying to prove to a court that it owned the rights to a successful drug.
The university lost the case and paid out a fortune in legal fees.
Was the institution sorry it took the matter to court?
Far from it. As one senior staff member explained, had the claim been successful, the university would have made millions.
Please don’t get me wrong. (...)"

(ABC Radio, BigIdeas, 6.09.09, listen to this talk here)
Find a transcription of this talk here

For a counter argument and comments see Stephen Romei, editor of The Australian, here

[1] Note that I am not questioning 'climate change', but the manner in which this critical issue is posed, often as an excuse to 'play' with ideas without any material context and/or knowledge framework (social, climatic, geographic, etc.)--measurable expressions of the material/physical context.


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