ABOUTORABI: Leadership without virtue

Two weeks ago, an alumnus of the Yale College Class of 2012, the field manager for his father’s congressional re-election team, was caught on film acquiescing to a sting investigator’s suggestion that he commit voter fraud. He has since resigned his position on the campaign.

Over the summer, another 2012 graduate lost her internship at the Wall Street Journal after she mistook a quotidian piece about the reopening of a footbridge in Manhattan for a creative writing exercise, inventing fictional sources and attributing quotes to them.

Though these stories may appear to be isolated, anecdotal events, they should worry us. The stakes are higher than one young man’s future in politics or one young woman’s career in journalism. Yale prides itself on educating the leaders of tomorrow, but if these stories are any indication, the leaders we are producing lack character, judgment and virtue. Unless Yale recovers its moral compass and relearns how to educate its students in the virtues required for leadership, the nation would do well to look elsewhere for its future leaders.

Neither Yale’s academic excellence nor its social culture distinguishes its undergraduate program; both are similar enough to those of hundreds of other colleges and universities. What sets Yale and its peer institutions apart is that they consider themselves — and are considered — training grounds for future leaders par excellence. We undergraduates have the gospel of leadership preached to us from our first moments on campus; at Commencement, the president of the University admits us to the “rights and responsibilities” (not “rights and privileges”) of Yale alumni, implying that we have a duty to take what we have learned at Yale and use it for the betterment of the world. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell whether this fixation on leadership is entirely healthy; in my opinion, it often has the savor of a smug complacency or an unseemly messiah complex. Either way, the fixation is undeniable. Ours is an education for leadership, and rarely are we allowed to forget it.

It is therefore frightening how little concern Mother Yale evinces for the moral education of her charges. Fifty years ago, the philosopher Henry Veatch commented on the American university’s accelerating abdication of moral authority: “Even the professors of ethics nowadays … would not for a minute consider it their business to instruct students in such time-honored themes as ‘the difference between right and wrong,’ ‘the good life for man,’ or the obligation of being ‘For God, For Country, And For Yale.’”

Admittedly, the Harvard-educated Veatch may have taken a more than philosophic pleasure in that jab at New England’s second-oldest college. But we cannot deny the substance of the charge. Do our classes impart any coherent system of ethics? Do our extracurriculars? Does the administration? During the Title IX controversy, many official statements pronounced that sexual assault was inimical to “Yale’s values.” And yet in my four years as a student here, I have yet to see that phrase — “Yale’s values” — applied to anything more concrete or less specific than the disapproval of rape, which ought to be a presupposition of any meaningful moral education — not its first and only lesson.

Nor is the faculty concerned with moral instruction. There are, undoubtedly, many teachers who see their job as the bettering of their students’ whole being, including the cultivation of virtue. For the most part, though, our professors are professionals, not mentors. They were hired for their specialized academic competencies, not because anyone thought they would add to the University’s ability to convert bright pupils into principled and profound leaders.

Many, I am sure, will feel that this is proper, that it isn’t the university’s place to teach virtue, that the academy should confine itself to academics and leave the students to their own moral explanations. Yet 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. Yes, there is room for disagreement over the precise virtues Yale should be imparting. But when Yalies are willing to participate in voter fraud or fabricate journalistic sources, it is clear that their moral education has been so deficient that they have not even picked up the preliminary virtues of self-respect and integrity, without which no true leadership is possible.

Bijan Aboutorabi is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at bijan.aboutorabi@yale.edu .

This piece is part of the News’ Election Results Forum. Click here to read more.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    Yale does attempt to teach virtue. They just teach the wrong ones. What do you think all the talk of “glorious, consensual sex” is about? Why do you think we learn not to ‘judge’ others?

    Their ‘virtues’ – the ones they attempt to teach us – are the baby-boomer hippy virtues of free love and moral relativism.

    • croncor

      There is no such thing as a “wrong” virtue. It’s like talking about excessive moderation. Read your Augustine: “Virtue is a good quality of the soul, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us.”

      • River_Tam

        My point: They teach what they think are virtues, but are actually not. I think my original post made this clear. But thank you for being a pedant about it.

      • croncor

        My point: educating people other than you by disagreeing with a point you weren’t making. You above all should know that YDN comments are just theatre.

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