Ethics and Teaching in the Humanities

By Lawrence J. Johnson

In l979 I was drawn into the lengthy process of revising the

B.A. curriculum at my university, a curriculum that would not be

finalized until l984. As a consequence of that process, I commit-

ted myself to teaching in a new upper-level core sequence generi-

cally entitled "Western Cultural Heritage." Because academicians

are extraordinarily articulate participants in a tradition that

espouses the ethical above all else, the process of curricular

reform proved for me to be in itself a classic example of ethical

conflict within an institution.

What I learned from my participation in that process and its

inherent conflicts has come to give an ethical focus to my

teaching of the Western cultural heritage: while the texts I

teach are to be found in any traditional "great books"

curriculum, the readings from Genesis and the Theogony to Stephen

Hawking are the primary vehicle for the development of my

students' understanding of and appreciation for the heterogene-

ous roots of ethical pluralism in the West, and thus constitute

an essential prolegomenon to the consideration of those ethical

conflicts that are an inescapable feature of professional life in

twentieth-century America.

In defense of my use of the classics of our tradition in a

most untraditional way, I would first call attention to persist-

ent patterns in curricular reform that make such an effort at

once both an exemplary case study in ethical confrontations and a

concrete demonstration of what I see as the underlying rhetorical

problem affecting not only curricular debates in particular but

ethical debates in general across our society. I would then

attempt to define how a "Great Books" curriculum can and must be

taught in order best to prepare students for the conflicts they

will inevitably encounter as they try to do "the right thing."

Curricular Reform: A Case Study

Curricular reform, especially in the humanities, has always

involved a patently ethical conflict: Protagoras' educational

program was rejected by Plato because it did not strive for the

essence of the good; Augustine transformed the study of classical

rhetoric into the higher enterprise of scriptural exegesis; the

Scholastics insisted upon the study of dialectic as the most

efficacious way to know,and thus love and serve God better in

this life; and the Renaissance humanists, our progenitors, saw

the study of the classics as most beneficial to both students and

their society. While the content of the curriculum would change

over the intervening centuries, this social utilitarianism would

shape first the arguments of the Deweyites, then the calls for a

return to the great books by the neo-conservatives, and finally

the most recent movements to diminish if not eliminate the Euro-

centrism and patriarchalism of the existing curriculum for great-

er global understanding.

Early in my career, I had become intensely interested in the

origins of Renaissance humanism, especially after I encountered

Paul Oscar Kristeller's assertion that this movement was essen-

tially a set of educational reforms and subsequently saw evidence

for that assertion in much of what I was reading from that peri-

od. Subsequently, when we began the process of curricular revi-

sion at my university, I read with equal intensity first in the

writings of Dewey and his followers and, later as we designed our

core courses, in the emerging conservative positions of Hirsch,

Bloom, and others. Finally, as a member of the curriculum commit-

tee, I listened carefully to countless hours of arguments from

the various disciplines in the College about the role they by

right should play in the liberal education of a student.

At the beginning of this process, I fancied myself a student

of Plato's Socrates, seeking to find the essential and universal

through a careful consideration of the particular. But eventually

I was forced to rethink my allegiances, and found myself more in

sympathy with Protagoras and the rhetoricians who had come to the

conclusion that "men apprehend different things at different

times owing to their different dispositions," and focused their

attention instead on the ways in which those differing percep-

tions could be cogently promulgated among others. In short, the

rhetoric of the debate came to fascinate me as much as the issues

themselves, and, for me at least began to point a way back to the

issues inherent not only in the debates about curricular reform

but in most contemporary ethical debates.

As I read and reread both the historical and contemporary

arguments on the curriculum and as I listened carefully to the

presentations of my dedicated and concerned colleagues, I found

few if any who were content simply to assert that their position

was a matter of personal belief or conviction. Instead, each

presented copious documentation supporting his or her position.

This putatively trivial observation came to characterize for me

the essential rhetoric of such debates. This use of appeals to

authority, otherwise known today as "the footnote," has, in my

estimation, grown from nothing in the writings of Plato and

Aristotle (save as mnemonic illustrations) to the measure of any

credible argument about ethics (or virtually anything else) in

today's professional circles. Plato and Aristotle, I suggest, had

no authoritative sources upon which to call; hence the emergence

of the Platonic inquisition and the Aristotelian analysis as

their characteristic modes of exploration and exposition.

But subsequent educators (and ethicians) suffered no such

lack, as even a cursory review of Cicero's writings, both rhetor-

ical and political, would reveal. And the resources multiply

almost logarithmically over time: even before the Renaissance,

the Scholastics will use their new-found Aristotle to set aside

the fideism of Augustine even as they cite him approvingly again

and again; then, as Scotists and Thomists go their separate ways,

each will find in their Aristotles and his commentators whatever

authority they need to batter their foes and buttress the convic-

tions they are pressing upon their audiences, just as Jesuits and

Protestants were both to find Scripture readily to hand for

whatever purpose they espoused. The wealth of the classical

corpus rediscovered in the Renaissance and the phenomenal growth

of both physical and social "sciences" each further advanced, in

their disparate ways, the centrality of this rhetorical appeal:

the neoclassicists overtly insisted upon the corroboration pro-

vided by their Augustan predecessors, while the rigors of the new

science came to demand, with equal intensity, that any new state-

ment about the nature of things be founded on the authoritative

demonstrations provided by other researchers. Today, the rhetori-

cal appeal to authority represented by the footnote is so in-

grained --from the freshman "research" paper to the journalist's

obligatory quote in an early `graph --that its nature, its flaws,

and its limits are rarely if ever considered.

To better understand the nature, power, and limits of this

rhetorical figure, we should remember what Protagoras had ob-

served and what Samuel Clemens had, in more than one sense,

recalled when the latter noted, "Figures don't lie, but liars can

figure." While Clemens was not thinking about rhetorical figures,

his observation about statistical arguments holds equally true

for arguments from authority: both the statistic and the citation

are highlighted in the argument, but lost in the shadows is a

massive construct of assumptions, manipulations, and even preju-

dices that produced the statistic or the quotation, and unless we

are equipped to dig into that construct and validate it for

ourselves, we stand at risk of being snookered. Even more fre-

quently, we find ourselves amassing evidence where it makes

itself available to us, picking the figures of either type that

best suit our purpose, confident that few if any will check our

intellectual arithmetic.

I will allow you, in the privacy of your own conscience, to

recall possible examples of the latter; for the former, I call

your attention to the books on curricular reform by E.D. Hirsch

and Allan Bloom. Popularly (but I think mistakenly) linked in a

common cause, both writers repeatedly cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau

in the course of their arguments. But these two authors present

two different Rosseaus: Hirsch repeatedly links him with the

"content-neutral" ideas of Dewey which dominate our schools,

while Bloom celebrates Rosseau as the founder of the school of

the humanities, lying "behind the most prevalent views of what

life is about and how to seek healing for our wounds." I see no

egregious misrepresentation in either text, and, respecting the

erudition of each author, I grant them both first-hand familiari-

ty with Rousseau's writings. What I see first is "[an apprehen-

sion] of different things at different times owing to their

disposition," as Protagoras would put it, and in that difference

a problem for most if not all readers that is all the more insid-

ious (though not necessarily culpable) because it is unrecognized

and thus unaddressed by such readers in most of the reading and

the listening that they do.

I say it is insidious from the perspective of Protagoras

who, Diogenes Laertius reports, invented the Socratic dialogue.

That rhetorical form, I believe, mirrors the intellectual proc-

esses through which we each first engage in formulating for

ourselves a coherent view of the world and then work out what we

must or must not do, whether it is in curricular reform or in

more vital areas of our lives. If that dialectic ceases, the

world view stabilizes and learning stops. If we do not distin-

guish, in such appeals to authority and in the authority to which

the appeal is made, different things at different times as a

function of different dispositions, then we close off our access

to potentially viable and superior options, limiting, rather than

enhancing, our preparedness to act from a cogent ethical stance.

This was clearly evident in the decade-long curricular

reform that is still on-going in my university. Having been

intimately associated with the participants in this process, I

eventually came to distinguish two responses to the mass of

alternatives surfacing in these deliberations: while a few par-

ticipants actively responded to the information presented them

and subsequently incorporated what they had heard into a more

complex understanding of the issues at hand, most simply accommo-

dated the alternative views surfacing in our discussions by

wrenching some to fit the position they had already taken when

they first joined the committee and rejecting the rest without

even bothering to consider them, much less provide counter argu-

ments. As a result, our curricular reforms were, in my estima-

tion, more a consequence of political horse-trading than any

emerging consensus about the ethical principles purported to be

at the heart of our educational enterprise.


Western Cultural Heritage as a Prolegomenon


I see this failure to respond, analytically and reflective-

ly, to the different apprehensions at differing times in differ-

ing dispositions as paradigmatic of all too many ethical confron-

tations today. I am not surprised by the ubiquity of this phe-

nomenon because it is engendered by the very real needs of the

ego for affirmation and reinforcement and because it is sanc-

tioned by dominant themes in our culture. Plato successfully

engendered a search for "universal truth" in the realm of ethics

on the model of the universals found by the Pythagorean in the

realm of mathematics; Aristotle and his successors appeared to

assure us of access to that truth. Like the young child looking

for his chewing gum on the floor of a crowded chicken coop, we

have thought, over the centuries, that we have found that truth a

multitude of times, to our recurring disappointment.

This pattern is compounded by the syncretism which flourish-

es in the West first through the Roman Empire and later through

the spread of Christianity as that empire dissolved. That syncre-

tism manifests itself in the efforts to formulate an orthodoxy

through the establishment of an ideological canon, efforts which

entailed the constant reinterpretation of existing texts to fit

orthodox sentiments. The "prophet" Virgil and the "moralized"

Ovid are but two of the most striking examples of such syncre-

tism; its full flower can perhaps best be found in the

l8th-century editions of the Latin classics, where exemplary

textual accuracy is counterbalanced by the most egregiously

syncretic footnotes tying those authors to a greatly changed and

rapidly changing England. As a consequence of this syncretism,

the Virgils that surface at various points in Western history are

in fact inventions of the time in which each appears, and have no

necessary relationship to the poet of Mantua and his thought.

And there is one last cultural bias that militates even more

against the appreciation of different apprehensions at differing

times in differing dispositions, and that is our unquestioned

acceptance of Aristotle's principle of contradiction, which

entails that if something is right or correct, then what is in

opposition is "wrong." We too often ignore the "if" in that

axiomatic Western formula, as well as the fact that it is less

than a universally accepted principle. This tool for distinguish-

ing right from wrong, coupled with the characteristic syncretism

of Western intellectual history, leads to both the formulation

of canons of acceptable works and the Index Librorum Prohibito-

rum. Cicero advised his son about what should be read and what

should be avoided; Augustine was adamant about what texts were

vital and which were vicious, and the process has been repeated

again and again to the present. All these efforts have in common

is an insistence on a monolithic ideological unanimity, whether

it exists a priori or must be syncretically imposed upon those

works deemed orthodox, and the resulting premium placed on such

"orthodoxy"in turn leads to the widely held but illusory percep-

tion that the Western cultural tradition is intrinsically mono-

lithic, simply because we and our predecessors would have it be

so and strove mightily to make it so. Thus today we have the

arguments of Hirsch and Bloom who urge, each in his own way, a

return to this imaginary monolith even as their opponents and

proponents of cultural diversity in the curriculum rail against

the perceived "oppressiveness" of the study of the Western

cultural heritage.

Because I am of the school of Protagoras, I will not give in

to the temptation to lay a curse upon both their houses. Instead,

I will continue to stalk about my classroom, using the texts

given to me by a curriculum committee to lead my students in the

analytic consideration of the different apprehensions of differ-

ent things by different men in different dispositions. While I

have done this in my teaching of such diverse courses as Techni-

cal Writing, Chaucer, and Science Fiction, I can do it best in

this "Great Books" sequence: these authors provide not only the

most long-lived and widely cited footnotes for formal arguments

but, more importantly, we find present in their arguments the

diverse paradigmatic epistemological and ethical formulae which

inhere in, shape, and substantiate our contemporary ethos. The

process of forming a personal ethic has been, for most of my

students, largely unconscious and mimetic; before their positions

solidify, I want them to raise that process to consciousness in

order to advertise both the strengths and weaknesses of the

options they have inherited.

Ours is a three semester sequence, and I am afforded the

unique opportunity to teach in all three courses. I use the texts

selected by others in two of the courses; in helping to select

the texts for the middle course, my sole concern was that there

be sufficient diversity in the readings; I was largely content

to teach those particular texts with which others were most

comfortable, as the texts were not as important to me as the

range of options the reading list offered my students. What I

think distinguishes my teaching of these texts is my emphasis on

the unique vision manifest in each author, rather than on the

continuity or coherence of the period, the place, or the school.

In examining their mastery of those disparate visions, I chal-

lenge them to find, analyze and evaluate a significant recurrence

of that vision or a significant part of it in the television they

watch, the magazines they read, and the arguments they have with

their parents.

A brief synopsis of some of the fundamental issues addressed

in the first semester of this sequence may serve to illustrate

better the richness, diversity, and persistence of the ethical

content in such a course, and in turn demonstrate the utility and

the virtual necessity of examining the roots of our ethics

through critical reading in very traditional texts. In order to

uncover those roots, we must attempt to strip away the syncretic

additions which overlay each text.

Nowhere is this more evident than in confronting Genesis

l-22 which everyone knows but few have read, and which first is

"known" through its generic incorporation into the Christian

canon and then further modified through the distinct homiletic

traditions in each Christian denomination. In this text students

confront a concept outside their personal experience: unquestion-

ing, immediate obedience and cosmic retribution for disobedience.

They also see better the linkage between a society's teleology,

its cosmogony, and its ethics; from that can also be derived a

sense of the unique role sacred texts would come to play in later

Western societies.

Hesiod's Theogony is a powerful counterpoint to the themes

of Genesis, once the syncretism of Christian writers from Augus-

tine through Milton to Edith Hamilton has been identified. In

Hesiod, students consider the difference between a "sacred text"

and the work of a professional poet, the radically different

sanctions and approbation enjoyed by each, and the authority each

has in a society. Then after fruitlessly trying to identify the

underlying teleology in Hesiod's chaotic cosmogony, they confront

a view of the world in which man is not the center of creation,

where randomness and appetitiveness personified in the gods

victimize both man and the natural world, where the forces per-

sonified in the gods demand acknowledgement while the gods them-

selves do not demand belief, and where, above all else, there is

no purpose. The ethics of hopelessness become even clearer when

Hesiod's companion piece, The Works and Days, is read alongside

excerpts from the Old Testament Proverbs. Survival, safety, and

sufficiency are the only ends of human existence, Hesiod writes,

and hearkening to his pragmatic advice is the way his brother

(and his listeners) will achieve those ends, unless the random-

ness and appetitiveness of the gods and nature intervene, in

which case no human effort is of any avail.

Once stripped of its l9th century romanticism, the Iliad

becomes a case study in this ethic: commemorating the wrath of

Achilles, Homer recounts the consequences of the rash appetitive-

ness of Paris which led him into a conflict between the elemental

forces represented by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, consequences

which consist of the deaths of heroes on both sides (to include

Achilles' outside of the text) and the dissolution of their

families, and, by extension, their societies. There is no con-

stancy or high purpose in Homer's universe, for the shifting

tides of war are beyond the control of the warriors, no matter

how heroic; and the greatest virtue stems from resignation, as

the most successful of the Greeks, the wily Odysseus, concludes

when apparently trapped by the Trojans:

This is a bad business. What will become of me?

If I show fear and run away from this mob, that is bad

enough. But it is worse to be caught alone, and Cronion

has put all the rest in a panic. But what's the use of such

arguments? I know only cowards vanish out of the battle but

a brave man must stand his ground and either kill or be

killed. (XI).

These three works may not be read by today's hopeless, but I

suggest to my students that the early Greek vision of the world

and morality never disappeared but was only obscured by the

optimism that was to be engendered in 4th century Athens, and

significant groups in the West, then and now, voice and act upon

an ethic that, at its core, Homer and Hesiod would recognize and


Euripides and Sophocles mark the beginnings of a shift to an

optimism that will flower in Plato and Aristotle, impelled by the

intellectual successes of the Pythagoreans. But first students

must ask why Medea is so successful, what could Oedipus have done

and what options do Creon and Antigone really have in their own

cultures? In my classes, anachronistic Christian answers to these

questions are illuminating for my students but not acceptable to

me, and that dialectic heightens their sensitivity to the dark

side of our heritage even as we begin to consider the social

optimism that begins in republican Athens, an optimism tempered

with a new but problematic ethical imperative: the good of the

society that takes precedence over the good of the individual (if

those two cannot be made one, as Aristotle would assert). In

counterpoint to one another, Pericles' funeral oration and the

debate between the Athenians and the Mileans engender still more

cognitive dissonance, compounded by the echoes of both that

resonate most recently in the rhetoric surrounding the Panamanian


In considering the tales told in Plato's Symposium, we once

again explore the difference between mythography and divine

revelation, gaining a greater appreciation of the difference

between the two, and thus of the difference between the

Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. At the same time,

the discussion of the Pythagorean advances in mathematics and the

promise of universal truth that emerges from those advances

illuminate Plato's treatment of knowledge, the nature of the new

philosophic enterprise, and the Good, all critical to our later

consideration of Augustine in a subsequent semester and, through

him, persistent strains in Christian thought.

Juxtaposed to the troublesome texts of Aristotle, Plato's

engaging literary style, its fictiveness, and the engagement that

results as students read his dialogue, compounded by his (and

our) rejection of the Sophists, raise the issues of art and

values, truth and persuasion, preparing students to read his

Republic more critically and to see those same issues in contem-

porary society.

But they must also confront Aristotle not only in his Nico-

machean Ethics but first in his Physics and Metaphysics where his

views of form, matter and causation are necessary for an under-

standing of his ethics and critical to an understanding of the

uniquely Western epistemology that underlies so much of our

ethical reasoning: that epistemology still is founded upon final,

formal and material causal analysis even though we talk only

about efficient causation. Such a confrontation is critical for

ethical understanding precisely because it forces students to

encounter their own unvoiced assumptions about their knowledge of

the external world, and how they analyze that world. In this

manner, they are able to discern the limits of the tools Aristo-

tle made available to us, tools until now presumed as superior to

others as knife and fork are superior to chopsticks.

My first semester's course in this sequence concludes with

readings in Cicero, the Aeneid and that long-damned Epicurean

Lucretius. Cicero is a striking example of the republican sensi-

bility that shapes so much of our patriotic tradition and of the

syncretism that is surfacing in Western thought. When contrasted

with the Iliad, the Aeneid evidences analogous syncretism as it

vividly introduces the concept of divine destiny (the literary

analog to Aristotle's final cause), a catch-phrase even to our

own day, even as it demonstrates the limits of that idea in the

stories of Dido and Turnus. Finally, those students who think

they know what Epicureanism was are jolted into pensiveness as

they first admire what they think is his prescient theory of the

atoms and then are forced to acknowledge their high ambivalence

to the implications of that theory for matters of love, death,

and human history.

Teaching in this sequence of courses has an unexpected

benefit: I am confident that I can teach each of these three

courses using the same set of texts for the next decade and only

rarely repeat myself extensively from semester to semester be-

cause this set of "canonical" texts is so rich in such different

apprehensions of different things resulting from different dispo-

sitions. At the same time, in abandoning my Platonic aspirations

and taking on the task of Protagoras, I believe I am of most use

to my students as I make them see that there is both a perplexing

complexity inherent in Western thought and a corresponding rich-

ness that can enable them to learn to do the right thing even as

they gain greater respect for the integrity and viability of

those who make alternative choices. For this avatar of Protago-

ras, that is enough.