The Disparity Between Intellect and Character

by Harvard professor Robert Coles

Institutions originally founded to teach their students how to become good and decent, as well as broadly and deeply literate, may abandon the first mission to concentrate on a driven, narrow book learning–a course of study in no way intent on making a connection between ideas and theories on one hand and, on the other, our lives as we actually live them.

the story
Students have their own way of realizing and trying to come to terms with the split that Emerson addressed. A few years ago, a sophomore student of mine came to see me in great anguish. She had arrived at Harvard from a Midwestern, working-class background. She was trying hard to work her way through college, and, in doing so, cleaned the rooms of some of her fellow students. Again and again, she encountered classmates who apparently had forgotten the meaning of please, or thank you–no matter how high their Scholastic Assessment Test scores–students who did not hesitate to be rude, even crude toward her.

At on point, she observed of the student who had propositioned her: “That guy gets all A’s. He tells people he’s in Group I [the top academic category]. I’ve taken two moral-reasoning courses with him, and I’m sure he’s gotten A’s in both of them–and look at how he behaves with me, and I’m sure with others.”

Drawing on her education, the student put before me names such as Martin Heidegger, Carl Jung, Paul De Man, Ezra Pound–brilliant and accomplished men (a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, a literary critic, a poet) who nonetheless had linked themselves with the hate that was Nazism and Fascism during the 1930s. She reminded me of the willingness of the leaders of German and Italian universities to embrace Nazi and Fascist ideas, of the countless doctors and lawyers and judges and journalists and schoolteachers, and yes, even members of the clergy–who were able to accommodate themselves to murderous thugs because the thugs had political power. She pointedly mentioned, too, the Soviet Gulag, that expanse of prisons to which millions of honorable people were sent by Stalin and his brutish accomplices–prisons commonly staffed by psychiatrists quite eager to label those victims of vicious totalitarian state with an assortment of psychiatric names, then shoot them up with drugs meant to reduce them to zombies.

I tried hard, toward the end of the conversation that lasted almost two hours, to salvage something for her, for myself, and, not least, for a university that I much respect, even as I know its failings. I suggested that if she had learned what she just shared with me at Harvard–why, that was itself a valuable education acquired. She smiled, gave me credit for a “nice try,” but remained unconvinced. Then she put this though, pointed, unnerving question to me: “I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what’s 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 keep trying to become a good person?”

I meant to say that our schools and colleges theses days don’t take major responsibility for the moral values of their students, but, rather, assume that their students acquire those values at home. I topped off my surrender to the status quo with a shrug of my shoulders, to which she responded with an unspoken but barely concealed anger. This she expressed through a knowing look that announced that she’d taken the full moral measure of me.

I wanted, really, to explain my shrug–point out that there is only so much that any of us can do to affect others’ behavior, that institutional life has its own momentum. But she had no interest in that kind of self-justification–as she let me know in a n unforgettable aside as she was departing my office: “I wonder whether Emerson was just being ‘smart’ in that lecture he gave here. I wonder if he ever had any ideas about what to do about what was worrying him–or did he think he’d done enough because he’d spelled the problem out to those Harvard professors?”

She was demonstrating that she understood two levels of irony: One was that the study of philosophy–even moral philosophy of moral reasoning–doesn’t necessarily prompt in either the teacher or the student a determination to act in accordance with moral principles. And, further, a discussion of that very irony can prove equally sterile–again carrying no apparent consequences as far as one’s everyday action go.

All to often those of us who read books or teach don’t think to pose for ourselves the kind of ironic dilemma she had posed to me. How might we teachers encourage our students (encourage ourselves) to take that big step from thought to action, from moral analysis to fulfilled moral commitments? Rather obviously, community service offers us all a chance to put our money where our mouths are; and, of course, such service can enrich our understanding of the disciplines we study. A reading of Invisible Man (literature), Tally’s Corners (sociology and anthropology), or Childhood and Society (psychology and psychoanalysis) takes on new meaning after some time spent in a ghetto school or a clinic. By the same token, such books can prompt us to think pragmatically about, say, how the wisdom that Ralph Ellison worked into his fiction might shape the way we get along with the children we’re tutoring–affect our attitudes toward them, the things we say and do with them.

She challenged us to prove that what we think intellectually can be connected to our daily deeds. For some of us, the connection was established through community service. But that is not the only possible way. I asked students to write papers that told of particular efforts to honor through action the high thoughts we were discussing. Thus goaded to acertain self-consciousness, I suppose, students made various efforts. I felt that the best of them were small victories, brief epiphanies that might otherwise have been overlooked, but had great significance for the students in question.

The student who challenged me with her angry, melancholy story had pushed me to teach differently. Now, I make an explicit issue of the more than occasional disparity between thinking and doing, and I ask my students to consider how we all might bridge that disparity. To be sure, the task of connecting intellect to character is daunting, as Emerson and others well knew. And any of us can lapse into cynicism, turn the moral challenge of a seminar into yet another moment of opportunism: I’ll get an A this time, by writing a paper cannily extolling myself as a doer of this or that “good deed”!


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