Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Keeping young minds open

Letter from university campus

From The Statesman
When I look at the face of a student sitting in my class, I do not think that one day he might become a corporate killer, a drug peddler or a suicide bomber. I firmly hope my students will become proud and successful professionals, parents and responsible citizens as most of them do.

Once upon a beautiful day at Morehead State University, long ago, a school nestling in the rolling hills of eastern Kentucky and Daniel Boone Forest, I was teaching an undergraduate class when I heard a gentle knock at the door. As I opened the door, I saw two cops standing solemnly and one of them, after apologising for the intrusion, said that they would like to speak to one of my students, John Doe. He asked politely and authoritatively: “Is he there?” It’s a drug inquiry, the other said. I was shocked and puzzled. Should I turn in one of my students to the cops, or turn them away making a plausible excuse for his absence?

The classroom, unlike a temple or church, is not a sanctuary; but nor is it a public forum. It is a place of awakening and certainly my students were awakened that beyond the world of textbooks there is another world, with which they are not totally unfamiliar. I closed the door behind me and returned to the class. The students, most of whom were girls, devoured me with their inquisitive and anxious looks and after a moment of extreme embarrassment and discomfort I asked John to leave the classroom. He looked at the window but understanding his drift I said, no, go from the front door. After two weeks of absence John returned, presumably on bail, and asked me if he could do the makeup work and continue in the course. As per the university rules, it was for me to decide whether to allow him to return to the class after such a long unexcused period of absence.

By this time the campus had learnt the truth about John, and I felt that it wasn’t exactly like allowing a confessed killer to sit in my class; nonetheless, it was somewhat of an ethical dilemma. Most people think that ethics is about what’s right and wrong within a given moral system into which they are born, but it is more than that. Ethics sometimes is about making a choice between two equally competing values or between two wrongs, and choosing the lesser one in compelling circumstances. Consider for a moment the ethical dilemma of a doctor who has two equally desperate patients and both likely to die, but he has only one kidney available for transplant. What should be the basis of his decision when the Hippocratic oath enjoins him: “First do no harm”? His decision, however rational it might sound, would let one of them die, which probably would remind you of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Doctor’s Dilemma.

I begin my fall semester law and ethics class at Norwich University with the ethical dilemma posed by Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century philosopher. If a man with a handgun knocks at your door, asking about another man who is hiding in your basement and with whom he wants to settle an old score, what would you do? Will you let him in and drag the man out to be shot, or tell a lie to save his life?

Both killing and lying are morally wrong according to the Christian morality, the framework within which my students have been growing up. Whatever the post-modernists might say, I think moral relativism is a worst form of immorality. But what was my moral framework under which I made the ethical choice to let John sit in my class, in spite of his dubious past? I am personally a mixed-up person. I grew up in a Hindu family where karma, compassion and truth are regarded as the highest virtues; nonetheless, the superstructure on this foundation has been that of post-Christianity Western secular humanism. And when John confronted me with the ethical dilemma, I recalled Oscar Wilde’s notorious words: “The difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” John would have a future if he completed his education, but if he were dismissed from the university he might become a drug dealer and harm the society and self-destruct.

I wasn’t bargaining like a game theorist.

Norwich University, once upon a time, faced an ethical dilemma about the presence of the Indonesian military-sponsored students. The American people used to watch on television the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military against innocent people of East Timor (before their independence) and some in the media accused the university of unintentional complicity. Should the university have let the students continue in the programme hoping that they would return to Indonesia as good citizen-soldiers in service of their country rather than killers of the innocent? A private university depends upon the public goodwill and must be accountable for its actions, including its investment decisions and foreign collaborations. The university gave the Indonesian students a chance and let them continue hoping that they would do good to their country when they returned.

Today American campuses, in spite of a diffused threat of terrorism, remain open and welcome everyone to their portals. The United States needs a steady inflow of talented young people without whom its brainpower will dwindle and its Silicon Valley will dry up.

(Dr ND Batra is the author of Digital Freedom: How much Can You Handle?)

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