I am a Teaching assistant for an ethics and values class, and in my time doing this, a number of students, and (surprisingly) teachers have asked me basically the same question: “Why the hell do we have to take this stupid class?”
I can only surmise that the number of people who actually ask this question drastically misrepresents the number of people who are thinking it. I have an answer for them though, and I never hesitate in giving it: “So you can learn how to think, dummy!”
Here’s the thing though – why is anyone asking this question in the first place? What has changed such that we no longer think prima facie that getting an ethics education is valuable?
It is not limited to ethics. The whole of the humanities and liberal arts are often questioned in terms of their value. What are you going to do with a [insert liberal art here] degree? What use is there for it?
The answer I give remains the same however. They teach us how to think, how to live and how to be.
Our country has been ablaze with political controversy for as long as I have been sentient enough to say “political controversy,” and as such I ask you – how will your recreation management class help you to adjudicate the controversy surrounding health care? How will your nursing classes show you why campaign finance reform is necessary or not? This is not to say that there is anything wrong with math, science, nursing, and mechanical engineering. It is to say that engineering will not help you distinguish between advertising and propaganda, campaigning and pandering, or moral and immoral. This however, is precisely the point of all the liberal arts from political science right down to English: to teach you to see subtle distinctions and clarify cloudy ideas and situations.
So then, given all that, why do we ask about the value of these disciplines? The reason is that value has almost exclusively come to mean economic value, even in our education. What will make a buck, get a job, or train a laborer is what is really valuable, and it is valuable insofar as it is profitable.
We should be wary of this kind of valuation, especially when we are confronted with so much – in the media, in our schools, in our public discourse – that can only be understood in terms of disciplines which we no longer value. Considering only economic usefulness makes it just that much easier to make a buck and grow the economy even if it does harm to our society or our souls.
So when the time comes to sign up for Ethics and Values, the one liberal arts class that we are all required to take, I implore you to cheer and not groan. It is more than likely that it is the most important and genuinely useful class you ever take.