Universities told to ‘embed ethics’ to stay relevant to students

Harvard professor says universities must take on responsibility for morality in a post-institutional and post-religious world

September 11, 2019
Howard Gardner speaks at the THE World Academic Summit
Source: ETH Zurich / Andreas Eggenberger
Howard Gardner speaks at the THE World Academic Summit

Universities must instil standards of ethics and morality in their students and create a sense of belonging in order to remain relevant and ensure that society does not become “totally transactional”, according to a leading professor.

Howard Gardner, the John H. and Elizabeth A. Hobbs research professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, said the emergence of a “post-institutional world” meant that people had little respect for, and therefore little loyalty to, “almost any institution”.

“Since that’s not going to change just because I’d like it to change, we have to implant in K-12 [school] and higher education enough kinds of standards of ethics, morality and decency so that even if people leave Disney or Google and go somewhere else, it will not be totally transactional: how much of a return on investment can I get before I move to the next place,” he told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit at ETH Zurich. “That involves planting a gyroscope in individuals that will last a lifetime.”

Professor Gardner added that this ethical role had traditionally been served by religion, but most of Europe and the US was now a “post-religious world”.

“What we really need, more than anything talked about today, is an ethical or moral society. And college is the last chance, I think, where we can affect the most people,” he said.

“If we don’t do it in our educational systems, societies will continue to blow up at the cost of the planet.”

Speaking as part of a panel on the topic of new definitions of talent, Professor Gardner, who is best known for his theory on multiple intelligences, also discussed the large number of students in the US with symptoms of poor mental health and said that universities must “create communities where people feel that they belong”. They could do this in part, he said, by weaving academic skills into students’ occupational or civic missions.

“Unless faculty and other senior people help students to feel that they belong and that they are not overly stressed or overly anxious, unless faculty can help intertwine their understandable academic specialty with a preparation for the new occupational landscape, then I think people will look elsewhere,” Professor Gardner said.

“As many of you know, more than half of the people in the right wing in the US feel that colleges and universities are inimical to the general welfare. That is not good.”

Lily Kong, president and Lee Kong Chian chair professor of social sciences at Singapore Management University, who also spoke on the panel, said that universities tended to focus on students’ personal and professional growth but “do not spend enough time thinking about our faculty’s continuing development”.

“Very often that means that [academics] focus on their research a lot more; they’re growing in that mission, but they’re not necessarily growing in knowing how to work with students with different skill sets that young people need,” she said.

“In the same way that we send our students out to industry, for example, to work on projects, we also need to think about our faculty development [and] getting our faculty out into industry.”


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Reader's comments (1)

UkHE, for one, abandoned the moral high ground a long time ago, constantly patronizing (alleged) tax-avoiding entities like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Starbucks and so on. HE has the infrastructure to have developed different solutions.


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