Several months ago, I stumbled upon an insightful column in the Yale Daily News, “Leadership without virtue,” by Bijan Aboutorabi. Aboutorabi describes the proud tradition of leadership at Yale, which is readily embraced by Yale undergraduates as well as a society that looks to institutions like Yale for its next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, he notes, the leaders turned out by Yale often lack the moral foundation needed to lead as they ought. Aboutorabi concludes his piece with the assertion that true leadership is not possible when divorced from core virtues like self-respect and integrity.
Aboutorabi’s disappointment with the lack of moral grounding in future leaders at Yale resonated deeply with me. At schools like Yale and Princeton, we’re rightly encouraged to learn as much as we can in four years and then take our skills into the world to serve others. After all, few would disagree that much is expected from those to whom much is given. At Princeton, we’ve even gone as far as revising our informal motto to include a call to serve every nation known to man: “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” This rallying cry is no mere semantics either. Princeton continues to aggressively pursue global partnerships in new areas like Brazil and Japan; provide bountiful opportunities for national and international service through fellowships, grants and thesis funding; and recruit students from every state and scores of countries beyond the borders of America. Princeton selects its students from all over the world and then deliberately sends them back into all corners of the world to lead.
This emphasis on global service is phenomenal and underscores Princeton’s admirable commitment to producing leaders. However, if Princeton and universities like it are serious about their commitment to cultivating leaders who transform the world for the better, then a pedagogical approach that emphasizes morality as well as academics is essential. Leadership expressed without the compass of morality can take incredibly auspicious potential and point it in any number of harmful directions. For instance, the recent scandal surrounding General Petraeus GS ’87, the infamous sex competition among three ’05 Princeton alums, and the 25-30 reports to the Honor Committee at Princeton each year are all examples of the need for Princeton to nurture ethical leaders. Princeton will suffer in terms of both reputation and net positive effect on the world if it fails to equip its students morally.
But how exactly does Princeton go about sharpening the ethical acuity of its own? One solution is to admit applicants who already possess strong moral principles. Unfortunately, even if it were feasible to accurately assess the moral strength of applicants through their application materials alone, the limited amount of time and resources the admission office has to evaluate 25,000+ applicants renders this approach unpractical.
Another possibility is for Princeton to provide optional resources that allow students to, on their own time, develop convictions and pursue a lifestyle based on virtues such as kindness, discipline, integrity, dignity, compassion and patience. The presence of tangible mentorship — from offices of religious life, from deans and from professors themselves — can theoretically allow students to develop healthy convictions and beliefs. The problem is that not all students will take advantage of optional resources. (Of course, even if some sort of moral development curriculum were required, students could still refuse to integrate what they learned into their lives; however, in this case at least, all students would still be offered some sort of ethical framework to live by.)
How, then, to integrate moral development into the Princeton experience as surely as the compulsory independent work, distribution requirements, precepts and other activities required of students during their tenure at Princeton? The Honor Code is an obvious, and important, example of a mandatory commitment to maintain academic integrity. Yet there are two reasons the Honor Code alone does not come close to providing a substantial ethical grounding for Princeton students: 1) It does not encompass morality extending beyond intellectual ownership of ideas; and 2) It is ultimately designed to be an expectation that students are forced to uphold; as such, it doesn’t teach students why they should desire to live morally.
Princeton is thus in a pickle due to the simple fact that academic brilliance is not inevitably tied to moral excellence. Smart people are not necessarily good people. Princeton and its elite peers cannot have their cake and eat it too, at least not without completely changing much of their didactic methodology. As Aboutorabi says in calling Elis to moral leadership: “If young men and women are to spend four years of their lives acutely conscious of their present and future privilege, they had better receive a sound moral education to prepare them for the use of that privilege.”
There is a limit to what an intellectual education alone can do — a ceiling on the potential of the mind operating on its own. So, to the Princeton administration, alumni and student body, I call us to individually and corporately set our hearts — not just our heads — to the difficult but imperative task of equipping Princeton students with the depth of character needed to serve and love a world in need of honorable leadership.
Dave Kurz is a 2012 graduate from Maryland and current intern at Princeton Faith and Action. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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