Feeling the Pain

The first step in teaching moral values to young journalists is to get them to feel pain—not their pain, the pain of others. From that, other virtues—compassion, skepticism, courage and the like—might follow. But virtue is getting harder to teach. Last spring two news stories forced colleges to ask themselves how they had failed.

At the graduation ceremony at Rockford College in Illinois, the audience booed the commencement speaker, Chris Hedges, a New York Times war correspondent. While he was citing themes from his new book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he raised moral questions about the war in Iraq. To his restless audience he attempted to make a distinction between comradeship, which provides a cohesion that enables young men to kill, and true friendship, which is love, that would allow them to see their enemies as human beings. But the graduates’ education had not prepared them to listen to a distinction, to tolerate a new idea on their last day of school.


The episode of Jayson Blair, the young black reporter who faked or plagiarized 36 stories for The New York Times, raised enough questions about careless supervision, failed affirmative action and leadership style to force the paper into a traumatic self-examination. But Blair’s problems began at the Philip Merrill Journalism School of the University of Maryland, despite the program’s requirement of a course in journalism ethics. The faculty there was charmed by him and, it now appears, uncritically promoted his career, while his fellow students on The Diamondback, the student paper, observed many of the traits that later brought him low.

My journalism ethics class asked the New York Times reporter Mike Wilson what personal qualities an “ethical” journalist should have. Mike, earlier in his career, had covered the execution of a man he had grown to like and also had profiled a senile pedophile priest, while allowing the priest to keep his dignity. A reporter, he said, should be a “nice guy” (he meant respectful), should work hard and have courage. A month later he found himself an embedded war correspondent with a company of marines at Nassiriya, Iraq, in danger of being overrun in an enemy attack. I would like to think that meeting Mike made my students more respectful, hard-working and brave.

But is moral education, in the sense of achieving an intellectual ethical change in a young person, possible at the university level? Even Cardinal John Henry Newmann, in the opening chapter of The Idea of University (1851), in which he defines “liberal” education as one that forms a lifelong “habit of mind,” says it cannot be done: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor a vessel with a thread of silk;” he says, “then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the pride and passion of man.”

Some universities have capitulated to the dominant obstacle to both serious study and serious journalism, the entertainment culture, or, as I call it, the Culture of Distraction: the relentless impact of the entertainment industries to the point where fashions, MTV, CD’s, cellphones, water bottles, cigarettes, omnipresent public television screens pumping out rap, commercials and sex set the tone of student lives. Thou shalt not have a moment of silence—much less a moment of contemplative thought. This is Newman’s pride and passion in their 21st century form.

What tools does the university have to help it “carve marble with a razor?”

It has four: habits of discipline, the challenge of the curriculum, the role model of the professor and opportunities to travel and to serve.

Discipline. In his discussion of the will in Talks to Teachers of Psychology, William James says their task is to build character, “an organized set of habits of reaction.” The teacher instills the right ideas and trains his students to act on them habitually.

A high percentage of freshmen arrive in college from high schools where they have dressed like convicts, worn baseball caps in class, wandered in and out of class at will, skipped class to avoid tests, never learned grammar or written a term paper, not read the standards—To Kill a Mockingbird or All Quiet on the Western Front, much less David Copperfield—and certainly never memorized a poem.

So the college must become, at least for a while, a cross between boot camp and a spiritual retreat to compensate within a few months for years of high school neglect. Read, write, drill, dress, memorize, make deadlines, raise your hand and speak up. Above all, the faculty must hold students responsible for their failures.

Curriculum. In recent years some schools and even cities have assigned or recommended a particular book, like Ernest K. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, to the whole community to read, with the hope that shared reading might make them better people. Some critics reject the idea that literature should be used for a social purpose, as if that would violate the integrity of a work.

Perhaps. But I’ll stand with George Orwell, who argues in a classic essay that he was discussing Dickens in terms of his “message,” because “every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message,’ whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.” In “Why I Write,” he tells us that since 1936 and the Spanish Civil War, every line he has written, directly or indirectly, “has been written against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

At the turn of the 21st century, scholars drew up lists of the 100 “best books” of the past 100 years.

On the nonfiction lists works of journalism abound that, written in response to the pressure of world events, pose a moral challenge. Like the unforgettable newsreel footage from Vietnam of the naked, crying little girl running down the road, her flesh and skin, burned by napalm, dangling like torn rags, some books forbid us to turn away. Like Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War, Edward R. Murrow’s war broadcasts, particularly his throat-gripping description of the prison camp at Belsen, and Eric Sevareid’s World War II autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream.

Sevareid once advised Dan Rather that the best way to advance his career would be to take a year off and read the classics. How many students, how many journalism students, including those getting master’s degrees, have read a half dozen—or any—of these books? How many have even read The New York Times?

The teacher. First, the teacher is the one who turns off the television sets, cellphones and Walkmans and brings Orwell into the room.

How do we make these visitors present in a way that will let them stay? That depends on how the teacher is present to the students. The historian Page Smith, in Killing the Spirit, argues that teachers must know and love their students and not hide their own convictions.

Smith’s vision calls for the kind of learning where the enthusiasm for new technology—distance learning, the teacher’s Web site as a substitute for everybody holding and marking up a real book, “smart” classrooms with emphasis on audiovisual displays—is seen as the enemy of moral education. Love, communicated in posture, action and tone of voice, demands physical presence.

Page Smith also says the teacher must serve as a role model of courage. How? Let teachers take some risks, tell students and authorities what they don’t want to hear, add their names to some just but unpopular cause.

Last year I interviewed the three most academically successful students about which factors, including family, religion and education, influenced their moral development. All saw themselves, accurately I think, as people with strong moral codes.

Don, one of the highest ranking seniors, has no formal religious commitment, but imagines God as a force of conscience and has a clear sense of morality from his father. When I realized he did not share my indignation that the government had withheld information on civilian casualties during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I felt I had failed.

When I asked Don to study the poster-sized collage I had created from photojournalists’ pictures emphasizing human suffering, he passed over the piled corpses, a legless teenager and a little boy losing his arm in the hospital and pointed out an American soldier carrying a wounded Iraqi soldier on his shoulders.

Luciane, a senior, and her family of eight gave up their Catholic religion to become Mormons. When she was 12, they migrated from Brazil to Jersey City. But as a student at Saint Peter’s College, influenced by philosophy, theology and political science teachers, she sharpened her social conscience and returned to the church. The most formative event was her return to Brazil two years ago, where she was confronted by children living in shacks and begging for food within sight of rich people’s estates. For her the unfolding of the Iraq war had been an ethically transforming experience, particularly the example of war correspondents who risked their lives to get the public the truth.

Tomás, a junior, has no religious commitment, though he took theology courses and made a high school retreat. But the war turned around his social views. After the World Trade Center, across the Hudson River from Saint Peter’s, collapsed before our students’ eyes, Tomás called for war. When his freshman philosophy teacher warned, “Don’t jump into anger,” Tomás did not want to hear it. But a lecture by a visiting philosopher from Fordham University, together with daily reading of The New York Times and film footage of peremptory wartime executions shown in class began to sink in. He changed his major from business to philosophy.

Service and travel. In “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” George Orwell describes an incident that was central to his moral education. While Orwell was serving in the Republican Army a dark-skinned Arab boy was accused by the officer of stealing Orwell’s cigars. He was stripped naked, humiliated and searched. But the boy was innocent, and Orwell, ashamed, tried to make it up to him by taking him to the movies. Some days later when Orwell, a corporal, attempted to discipline his own squad, he handled it badly and his men rebelled. At that, the brown-faced boy rushed to his defense and subdued the angry soldiers.

In Orwell’s analysis, ordinary times, “the safe and civilized life,” inhibit the primary emotions, including generosity and gratitude. In any normal circumstances, men who have offended one another would never be reconciled. But he and the boy could become friends because they had “been through an emotionally widening experience,” which in this case was the Spanish Revolution. The trigger for a moment of moral growth is often an emotional shock—one that requires us to see a stranger, particularly an enemy, as human like ourselves.

Colleges cannot normally send their students into life-threatening situations; but there are opportunities for political action, antiwar protests, international service projects (particularly in Africa and Latin America) and extended travel that involves some hardship.

But as the sociologist Robert Bellah emphasizes in the quarterly periodical Conversations for Spring 2004, practical experience, like service learning, must be part of an actual course, done in a reflective context, if it is to have an educational effect. In his own way Orwell exemplified the same principle. He seemed to suffer deliberately—living “down and out” in Paris and London—but always in order to write truly.

Journalism education seems an ideal vehicle to integrate feeling and thought. Hemingway told a young man who came to him for advice: Remember how you felt when you saw the trout leap and what smell, sound, texture, or play of the light made you feel that way, and write it so the reader can feel the same.

My own advice to students is: Remember how you felt when you saw an innocent person suffer or die. Write so the rest of the world can share the pain.

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John Spike
8 years 2 months ago

Thank you Fr. Schroth for your helpful article on moral education at the university level.  More and more it seems to me that Catholic schools have become a last bastion for teaching the Western classics in their full measure, number and weight.


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