The Aims of Education

My approach to teaching could be described as “outcome-based education,” given the emphasis of my courses on helping students to develop particular skills of moral cognition.

For me, this narrower, short-term aim has always been tied to a broader vision of the humanities, or of liberal education, or of human life in the world. It has taken be by surprise, then, that on several occasions colleagues have asked something like the following critical questions:

In focusing so much on skills and measurable outcomes, are you not selling out to the corporate model of higher education as mere job-training? Are you not betraying the spirit of liberal education by capitulating to the increasingly corporate or consumerist approach to higher education, which reduces the whole enterprise to the provision of “credentials”?

This is a fair question, one made perhaps more urgent by the fact that the vast majority of my students are professionals-in-training, and much of what I do, particularly in engineering education, is to prepare them to work well and responsibly in their professional roles.

My first reply to the question of whether I am betraying the liberal arts is simply, “I hope not!”  I think I can do better though, in that I can draw a distinction between outcomes-based education of the kind I am developing from the job-skills-training model that seems more and more prevalent in higher education today.

Continue reading “The Aims of Education”

Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground

My tongue-in-cheek comment on the language of hydraulic fracturing was intended to get at the ways in which metaphors and images can affect – and sometimes skew – our understanding of risks and responsibilities.

This effect can work in any direction, for or against any particular position, and it can be especially pronounced when the problem situation within which people are making decisions – and disagreeing with one another over what decisions to make – are not well understood.

One theme that emerged early in our first workshop on hydraulic fracturing was that nearly every available image of hydraulic fracturing is inaccurate in ways that may exaggerate or, at least, misrepresent the risks involved in the process – and this is true even of images on websites of those who should know better, and on websites of organizations generally favorable to the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction.

One of the students on our project team came across an especially egregious example of the type, an image used in the film, Gasland: Continue reading “Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground”

From the Archive: Oil Liberation!

As an over-the-weekend teaser for a couple of posts I’m planning for next week, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek entry from my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, from April 7, 2014.


Oil Liberation!

A longtime friend posted a link on Facebook to an article bearing the headline:

Vast oil trove trapped in Monterey Shale formation

The article describes the difficulty of extracting the oil while still turning a profit, with passing mention of some of the environmental and social concerns associated with the extraction processes that might be involved.

This is not a blog post about hydraulic fracturing, per se, but a brief comment on the use of language: the headline reveals a way of framing the meaning of shale oil that cuts off any debate about the advisability of extracting the oil before it can get started.

It comes down to a matter of metaphor.

To trap something is to confine or limit it when it would otherwise move freely.

To say the oil is trapped is to suggest that oil in its natural state is free. The oil would be free, could be free, and should be free but for the damned, cruel, oppressive shale formation holding it back!

What’s proposed then is not “fracking” – such an unpleasant word, “fracking” – it’s Oil Liberation! Continue reading “From the Archive: Oil Liberation!”

Saving St. Aldo

There is a long-running debate in the field of environmental ethics between Bryan Norton and J. Baird Callicott over the meaning and the legacy of the works of Aldo Leopold.

I have been a near observer of one side of this debate, as Bryan’s office was, until his retirement last year, just around the corner from mine.

To throw around a lot of technical jargon, while Callicott reads Leopold as a moral monist espousing a form of ecocentrism, Norton reads Leopold as instead seeking to foster a pluralistic pragmatism that is compatible with or encompasses the more generous varieties of anthropocentrism.

In more ordinary terms, Callicott thinks environmental ethics needs to produce a single, compelling moral theory (that’s “monism”) that includes acknowledgement that non-human living things, and especially, ecological systems have value in themselves (that’s “ecocentrism”). Continue reading “Saving St. Aldo”

Noticing, Responding, Thinking

In the first days of classes, this week, I provided students something of a gloss on the learning objectives of my courses in practical ethics, which are stated formally in the syllabus of each.

I told them the aim of the course is for each of them to cultivate a richer moral imagination, which comes down to a particular set of cognitive skills or capacities: Continue reading “Noticing, Responding, Thinking”

Dreaming of Failure

I’m not sure when I first started having them but it was fairly early in my career: at least twice a year, at the start of a new term, I could expect the arrival of what I soon began to call teaching-anxiety dreams.

At first, they were fairly mundane. I don’t recall any dreams in which I show up to class without any clothes, but perhaps I have suppressed the memory of them.

One of my all-time favorites was one I had when I was teaching at the University of New Hampshire, in which I had been scheduled to teach two classes on different topics at the same time, in adjacent rooms. I coped, in the dream, by scrambling back and forth between the rooms.

I began to look forward to those dreams, as they would help me to focus on the work of the coming term.

I also took them as something of a sign: I thought and I said that, if I ever stop having teaching-anxiety dreams, it would indicate that I should get out of the profession, as it would mean that I just didn’t care enough about my students or my work as a teacher to be anxious about them.

It would also mean that I was not taking enough risks in the design of my courses, that I was becoming too safely conventional.

Then, three or four years ago, I stopped having such dreams. Continue reading “Dreaming of Failure”

What’s Science Got to Do With It?

One of the last things I read online, yesterday evening, was a new column in The New York Times online, under the irresistible title, “Where Does Moral Courage Come From?

(The Times has been an unusually rich source for ethical inquiry and reflection, and not only because of the news reported in its pages.)

The author, David Bornstein, relates a number of moving stories of people standing up in the face of injustice, regardless of consequences to themselves.

In second paragraph, though, is a single sentence that, to me, seemed out of place. Continue reading “What’s Science Got to Do With It?”

Object Lessons

My post about the cyclotron case – “The Other End of the Beam” – has made me wonder whether I could build a course in practical ethics, or perhaps just the introductory segment of a course, around a single, physical object.

I’d come across a brief account of the idea of an object lesson, which is attributed to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educational theorist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in a recent overview of the philosophy of education by Nel Noddings.

I’ll need to go back and look at her account, and I’ll need to dig into the history of it, but the basic idea is to allow students to learn from interacting directly with a particular object. Especially notable is that the technique was often used for moral instruction, often in a religious context.

That original meaning of the term, object lesson, has been obscured: in common usage, it refers generally to an experience from which someone learns something.

I’d like to restore the core idea of interacting with an object, in imagination if not in direct experience, to give students practical experience using one or another skill of ethical inquiry. Continue reading “Object Lessons”

The Other End of the Beam

This past semester I presented students in my engineering ethics course with an especially messy problem situation involving the development of a cyclotron for use in proton therapy, an unreliable fellow engineer, a boss playing favorites, the spectacular failure of a control system during a preliminary test, the relative merits of hardware versus software, and a lot of time pressure.

Proton therapy is a relatively recent development in the treatment of cancer; a new facility for proton therapy is under construction only a few blocks from campus.

Students worked on this situation in groups over a period of several weeks. I asked them to analyze the situation, do whatever background research they needed to do, develop at least three options, and offer up a careful, even-handed consideration of the ethical implications of each option in terms of basic values.

The results were mixed. Continue reading “The Other End of the Beam”

What I’d Like My Students to Learn

I’m just past the end of Fall term, refining my plans for Spring.

I have, for the past few years, been teaching ethics through an approach called problem-based learning (PBL): students work in groups to sort through complex, concrete problem situations, in response to which I ask them to develop and consider the ethical implications of several distinct options.

I am in the throes of revising the design of my courses, moving toward what I can’t help but call PBL 2.0.

One of the things that turned me away from more conventional ways of teaching was the realization that, although I’ve long recognized that I am not training students for careers in academic philosophy, my course materials, lectures, and written assignments still bore the vestiges of such a training program.

The first thing I had to do, then, was to throw out my old list of learning outcomes for the course, and to develop a new list focused on the development of particular cognitive skills related to moral imagination. Continue reading “What I’d Like My Students to Learn”