Academic reality: Brown to include a study of values
By Kate Zernike, Globe Staff, 05/28/99
Treading into a field that most schools have long considered far too mine-laden, Brown University will integrate the formal study of values into its famously unstructured undergraduate curriculum beginning next year.
Educators have been made wary of such programs by critics who ask whether schools can teach values, and if so, whose they will teach.
But Brown officials say that with the repetitive shocks of mass shootings in schools and a lack of respect for the nation's leaders, political concerns about teaching values have given way to a yearning among Americans for agreement on a core set of principles.
''It's not a mystery to anybody that the question of values ranks top in
the public mind when people are asked about what is the nation's problem,'' said Nancy L. Rosenblum, a professor of political science and the director of the values initiative at Brown.
''With the decline of personal virtue that we see among our leaders and
all the collective horrors in our world, these reflections on values come up. There's a kind of exhaustion with cynicism, an interest in trying to reconstruct values. We want to exploit what we see as a renewed interest.''
The program will engage undergraduates in a discussion of the whole range of what Rosenblum called ''the elements that make up the good life: social justice, human morality, character, friendship, spirituality, aesthetics, the nature of beauty.''
The university will inaugurate the program with a public seminar at the start of commencement weekend tomorrow, and the formal study for undergraduates will begin with freshman seminars discussing the values that make up a ''quality life'' next winter. A sophomore seminar will follow, on justice and responsibility. Eventually, Brown administrators said, a course in values is likely to be a requirement for a diploma in any major, as much as writing or the completion of a thesis.
Brown officials say the addition of the study of values is the biggest change in the ''New Curriculum,'' a pioneering program introduced at Brown 30 years ago that did away with most course requirements and made grades optional.
But if adding a formal study of values redefines the Brown curriculum, Rosenblum said, it also reflects a change in academia in general. While religious colleges have consistently taught courses on values, nonsectarian schools have traditionally shied away from such discussions, thinking them inconsistent with the spirit of academic inquiry.
''We're witnessing a sea change even in academics and radical
intellectualism, away from pure deconstruction and relativism, away from cynicism,'' Rosenblum said.
Brown officials said the introduction of values to the curriculum was a return to the earliest mission of their university, which was founded by a predominantly Baptist group to be a ''liberal, catholic interdenominational school.''
''The Charter of 1764 defined Brown as a place that prepared students for
lives of `usefulness and reputation' in the world beyond campus,'' said Brown president E. Gordon Gee. ''Increasingly, the world needs men and women who can discern and champion the necessary elements of a good life and a just society. ... We intend to promote and enhance that ability to discern what is necessary for a good life.''
Until now, most programs in values or ethics have been concentrated at the graduate level, and specific to certain fields - ethics in law, for example, or bioethics. Dartmouth has a program for ethics in engineering. The closest program to what Brown will offer is at Princeton, where the University Center for Human Values has offered freshman seminars on everything from computer privacy to political theory.
''There has been a period where values have been a strange topic,'' said
Peter Kramer, a psychiatrist and author of the bestselling ''Listening to Prozac,'' who will appear on a panel at the commencement weekend seminar at Brown tomorrow. ''In the '60s and '70s, liberals really had the upper hand on values, coming out of the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement. Then we entered this period where values seemed associated with political conservatism, or religious extremism.
''But now, there is a sense ... of laissez-faire capitalism having gone
awry, a lack of ability to control what emerges from the market place. The level of violence that would have previously indicated an art cinema movie now is entirely mainstream almost too easily accessed. So there may be more of a consensus about the need for values.''
Still, Rosenblum said, Brown officials recognize the potential pitfalls in their new program. Brown's New Curriculum has been parodied as a self-indulgent exercise in personal growth, and courses in values might be open to the same knock.
''The trick is on the one hand to be academically serious, on the other
to make it introspective and meaningful, personally, without it devolving into a confessional or anything like that,'' she said. ''Treading that line is difficult.''
In her freshman seminar, for instance, she plans to discuss ''Walden,'' and whether Henry David Thoreau was peculiar in believing self-sufficiency was the key to life.
Some critics will also say, she acknowledged, that the university shouldn't try to define values.
''There's still that question. It will always arise; it should always
arise,'' she said. ''We know that declarations and attempts to enforce universal values have been a disguise for imperialism and oppression, and we should always be sensitive to it.
''Having said that,'' she added, ''the business of deconstruction and
skepticism makes sense where you have very powerful traditional values and conventions. It doesn't make sense when people feel they don't have values. Then, it's crippling.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 05/28/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.