Integrity Test

I take ‘integrity’ to mean a kind of wholeness or consistency of character: someone with integrity can be counted on to behave with the same kind of self-control or courage or respect or honesty or fairness in any circumstances, even if no one is looking.

An old test of integrity is the Ring of Gyges, from Plato’s Republic: a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible, which enables him to get away with all sorts of bad behavior. In the story, it could be said the shepherd lacked integrity: he was one person in one circumstance but, as soon as those circumstances changed, his behavior changed abruptly.

The challenge of the Ring of Gyges is this: If you had the ring, would you follow the shepherds example and become someone else when you cannot be seen? Or would you remain constant in whatever degree of virtue you happen to have?

It occurred to me this morning that it might be possible to develop a new integrity test that might appeal to the current generation of students.

You are posting anonymously to an online discussion, and you disagree strongly with a comment someone else has posted. You quickly type another comment in reply. Before you click on the button to post it, consider: All else being equal, would you post the same comment under your own name?

If there are things you would post anonymously – insults and threats, for example – that you would be ashamed to have connected with you by name, does this suggest a division or inconsistency in your character?

I say “all else being equal” because I understand that there are many circumstances in which people have good reason to post anonymously – when there’s a power imbalance, for example.

As I write this, I have some doubts about the usefulness of this test. It may introduce too many extraneous factors.

How about it, though? Could this be a useful way of getting at the idea of integrity? Is the analogy with the Ring of Gyges – the possibility of getting away with conduct one would never consider under other circumstances – sufficiently strong?

I’d be interested in a discussion of the idea.

Thinking about Virtue: A Bit of Scaffolding

I have been reading back in some literature on problem-based learning (PBL), and related matters, in preparation for writing a paper on my ongoing course-design process. Along the way, I made a discovery – or a re-discovery – that was immediately and urgently useful in the classes I’m teaching this semester.

One of the basic ideas behind PBL is that teaching and learning can be modeled as a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins 1987, Newstetter 2005). The challenge of course design is to create a learning environment in which students, working on their own but with guidance, develop a particular set of cognitive capacities.

Part of the knack of course design is to make a realistic assessment of how far students will be able to go in this development within the limits of a semester; another part of it is providing just those kinds of support students need to go that far.

(I could get into some of the theory behind this, some of which is derived from Vygotsky’s work on human cognition, especially his notion of the “zone of proximal development” . . . but I’ll leave that deeper dive for another time.)

What I want to get at in this post is the idea of scaffolding, an artificial structure provided to students that can allow them to operate at a higher cognitive level than they could otherwise reach. The hope and the aim is for students to be less dependent on the scaffolding as they go, until they can work at that higher level on their own.

The key, and the thing I was missing, is that scaffolding can and should have a physical component to it, or at least a spatial and even tactile way of arranging cognitive elements that directs the students to make distinctions and connections among those elements. Continue reading

Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.

Piaget on Cheating in School

I really have just a quotation and a few comments for today; I’ll have another brief entry, tomorrow, on a related matter.

From Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans. Marjorie Gabain (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), pp.286-7:

Cheating is a defensive reaction which our educational system  seems to have wantonly called forth in the pupil. Instead of taking into account the child’s deeper psychological tendencies which urge him to work with others – emulation being in no way opposed to cooperation – our schools condemn the pupil to work in isolation and only make use of emulation to set one individual against another. This purely individualistic system of work, excellent no doubt if the aim of education be to give good marks and prepare the young for examinations, is nothing but a handicap to the formation of reasonable beings and good citizens. Taking the moral point of view only, one of two things is bound to happen. Either competition proves strongest, and each boy will try and curry favour with the master, regardless of his toiling neighbour who then, if he is defeated, resorts to cheating. Or else comradeship will win the day and the pupils will combine in organized cheating so as to offer a common resistance to scholastic constraint.

Let me highlight one passage, which could very well be written of the system of public education in the U.S. in the current decade: Continue reading

Consideration Without Judgment

The unifying idea behind my courses is that students should be able at need to offer considered judgments on the ethical aspects of decisions and actions in response to complex situations. This is a fairly conventional notion lifted from the philosophical tradition, whereby a judgment based on nuanced awareness and careful thought is preferable to mere opinion.

Judgment is easy; consideration is more difficult, and the means of focusing on and improving consideration can be elusive if judgment keeps getting in the way.

One of the frustrations I have had with the conventional argumentative essay is that it keeps the focus on judgment which, for many students, simply defaults to prior established opinion. What I have encountered in student essays in the past suggests that, for many, to write an argument is simply to build fortifications for the opinions they already hold, using whatever material is at hand, a process that need involve very little in the way of genuine consideration. Continue reading

From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part four

This is the last of my old posts on Objectivism, from February 19, 2007.


Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part four

I think that I am more or less done writing about my misspent youth, for now. I may have more to add at some point in the future.

I did want to add that I occasionally come across a student whom I suspect of being an Objectivist, or at least an Objectivist sympathizer. The signs are not hard to spot. Continue reading

From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part three

This one was first posted to A Skeptic’s Creed on February 16, 2007.


Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part three

On second thought, it may be that the paper I wrote about Objectivism during my last semester in college is best left in obscurity.

Part of the problem is that I just can’t help reading the paper as the work of a student. I keep wanting to grade it, to comment on it, to correct it, to steer it in a better direction by sheer force of will. I am haunted by what the paper might have become in more capable hands than those of my twenty-one-year-old self.

(I experience this sort of thing a lot when reading students’ work. They have no idea what an agony it can be, always wanting their work to be the best it can be, but always seeing how it could have been better.) Continue reading