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Rock Ethics Institute encourages moral literacy|
By Melissa W. Kaye
| People face moral dilemmas every day, points out Dr. Nancy Tuana, Penn State philosophy professorwhether to take a gift from a business associate, how to vote, accepting praise at the expense of a co-worker.|
In those moments, explained Tuana, people have no choice but to take a stand. But its important to make such decisions consciously and understand why were acting the way were acting, she said.
Thats the idea behind the Rock Ethics Institute, established with a gift from Douglas and Julie Rock in 2001 to promote what the institute calls moral literacy among students through outreach, research and teaching.
If a context presents moral issues, its important to be able to identify that it does and to have good reasons for the stance that we take; its also important to be able to understand and evaluate the positions of others, Tuana, director of the institute, said. Ive always been frustrated by our cultures attitude toward moral education: We value ethical citizens, but we have not included the basic skills of moral reasoning as part of a K-12 educational program. Many children miss out on a rich opportunity to develop these complex and crucial skills.
The result of the Rocks vision is what Tuana calls an institute without walls, reaching across all colleges, poised to undertake initiatives on any issue that may pose moral questions.
Such an endeavor is exciting for Tuana, who came to Penn State in 2001 from the University of Oregon to build the institute and teach courses on values and ethics.
I did not want to create an institute around one issue, such as bioethics or legal ethics, she said. I wanted to emphasize that all aspects of life involve ethical issues, so Ive set out to establish a diverse set of initiatives. I began by identifying areas of strength here at Penn State that would enable us to make rich connections to our community. And by bringing together everyone from philosophers to historians to geographers to scientists, initiatives take on a life of their own.
Take, for example, Breaking the Silence, a multinational collaboration led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that links more than 200 public schools around the Atlantic Rim to promote better K-12 teaching of the slave trade, abolition, African culture, slavery and racism. At Penn State, the Rock Ethics Institute will integrate an ethics element into curriculum on the subject, developed along with the Universitys George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center and the Africana Research Center for the local State College Area School District.
Slavery certainly has an ethical dilemma, Dr. William Blair, director of the Civil War Era Center, said. Racism and unfree labor is not a dead issue. There currently are an estimated 27 million enslaved people, including slave labor in Africa and India.
Plans include a summer teachers institute to provide training on curriculum development and a Web site that will offer teachers course models.
The Rock Ethics Institute has helped to stimulate interdisciplinary discussion on ethical issues concerning race and racism by cosponsoring with the Civil War Era Center and the Africana Research Center a lecture and seminar series, bringing scholars together who are in different fields but pursuing similar ideas.
For example, in one lecture, the historian Dr. Barbara Fields of Columbia University argues that Americans have evaded the moral implications of racism. Racism is a historical crime whose results have included slavery, disfranchisement, segregation, lynching and social inequality. By calling it race, Americans have disguised the deliberate act of the perpetrator as an involuntary act of the victim, she said.
In another lecture, the philosopher Dr. Robert Bernasconi of Memphis University focuses on the philosopher Kants theory of the scientific origins of race.
Blair, who as a historian said he hadnt considered Kants ideas before listening to Bernasconis lecture, posed the question: Does race have a genetic composition? He added, Science makes us think we know about where this is all coming from. By trying to figure out the origins of race, it brings about the possibility that there might be an end. Bondage and oppression might not end in our lifetime, but we can try to chip away at it.
The Rock Ethics Institute brings ideas together in a similar way with its initiative on bioethics. The initiative includes a lecture series, as well as a conference thats in the planning stages. Its main project is a radio program, also sponsored by the American Philosophical Association and WPSU-FM, Penn State Public Broadcastings public radio station. The program, The Examined Life (as Socrates famously put it, the unexamined life is not worth living), will begin airing this summer with the goal of giving philosophy more of a voice in public discussion, Tuana said.
The series will offer multiple perspectives on topics ranging from genetics (discussions would include such issues as cloning and genetic selection) to reproduction (including prenatal testing) to disability (such as access to medical resources) to death and dying.
Producer Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz hopes The Examined Life will help listeners think differently about their daily routines.
We lead busy, nonreflective lives. Its important to step back and take an hour to think about these issues. Theres a tendency to sweep these things under the rug, she said.
Making bioethics accessible to listeners is a challenge, Deutschman-Ruiz said. Philosophy is one of those things that people are intimidated by, like statistics or physics.
Deutschman-Ruiz gave the topic of the first show as an example: bioethics and disability. People shy away from talking about disability. But most of us will be touched by it somehow; for example, you may have a parent with Alzheimers.
Disability is a focus of another one of the institutes initiatives, which features lectures and discussions in a disability studies group. In one lecture, titled Disability and Democracy, Dr. Michael Berube, a Penn State literature professor and father of a child with Downs Syndrome, proposed that society ought to think of disability rights as civil rights.
Id be happy if people de-medicalized disability and saw it as central to ethics, he said. The Rock Ethics Institute has made disability an object of study in both humanities and social sciences. Thats an advance in itself.
Tuana hopes to start a summer institute on the topic of disability studies for teachers (modeled after the Breaking the Silence summer institute), with medical professionals, counselors and lawyers offering their perspectives on the issue.
As we mainstream children with disabilities into our public schools, educators have to consider not only how to provide a rich educational program for those children, but they also have to think about how they can help the other children in the class see the child with a disability as different but not inferior. Thats the ethical challenge, Tuana said.
Teri Lindner, a Learning Support teacher for the State College Area School District and a participant in the disability studies group, likes the idea of a summer institute. Its important to bring people together from all different areas to look at how disability impacts daily life in different ways.
With so many events planned, its clear the institute wants a morally literate public. Other activities have included a lecture on sports and ethics by Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. The Land Institutes Wes Jackson came to Penn State to discuss sustainable agriculture.
Theres little in our lives that is divorced from ethics, Tuana said. This gives us the opportunity to develop initiatives in every single college at Penn State. If someone is interested in developing an initiative on food and ethics, or architecture and ethics, or issues of ethics in information science, I would be delighted.
An outreach program of the College of the Liberal Arts