“A” Grades for Him: Sexual Harrassment of Her
But if indeed there is now no body of moral knowledge in our culture, then a number of things highly positioned people express surprise about are not surprising at all. Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard and a well-known researcher and commentator on matters social and moral, published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.” The piece is about “the task of connecting intellect to character.” This task, he adds, “is daunting.”
His essay was occasioned by an encounter with one of his students over the moral insensitivity – is it hard for him to say “immoral behavior?” – of other students, some of the best and brightest at Harvard. This student was a young woman of “a Midwestern, working class background” where, as is well known, things like “right answers” and “ideology” remain strong. She cleaned student rooms to help pay her way through the university.
Again and again, she reported to Coles, people who were in classes with her treated her ungraciously because of her lower economic position, without simple courtesy and respect, and often were rude and sometimes crude to her. She was repeatedly propositioned for sex by one young student in particular as she went about her work. He was a man with whom she had had two “moral reasoning” courses, in which he excelled and received the highest of grades.
This pattern of treatment led her to quit her job and leave school – and to something like an exit interview with Coles. After going over not only the behavior of her fellow students, but also the long list of highly educated people who have perpetrated the atrocities for which the twentieth century is famous, she concluded by saying to him, “I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what is true, what’s important, what’s good. Well, how do you teach people to be good?” And, she added, “What’s the point of knowing good if you don’t try to become a good person?”
Professor Coles proceeds to comment on how ineffectual his efforts to respond to this young woman were. He seems genuinely conscience stricken that he shrugged in response to her disappointment. But he never confronts the fact that he certainly did not tell the students in his courses that they should not treat someone doing menial work with disdain, or that they should not proposition a classmate or anyone else who is cleaning their rooms.
There were no questions on his test about these matters. He never deals with the fact that he could not use such questions because no one can claim to know about such matters. The problem here is less one of connecting character to intellect than one of connecting intellectual to moral and spiritual realities. The trouble is precisely that character is connected with the intellect. The trouble is what is and is not in the intellect.
Indeed, in the current world of accepted knowledge one can’t even know the truth of a moral theory or principle, much less a specific rule. You could never grade someone for holding Utilitarianism or Kantianism to be true or false. One can only know about such theories or principles, and think about them in more or less clever ways. You can brightly discuss them. For that the young man got his A’s. But that, of course, had no bearing on his character or behavior because it is only literary or historical or perhaps logical expertise, not moral knowledge. And if you are already flying upside down and don’t know it, your cleverness will do you little good.