Dr. Otto J. Helweg, P.E.
Dean Emeritus, College of Engineering and Architecture, NDSU
U.S. address: 33 Crystal Lane, Maumelle, AR 72113
Over Seas address: PO Box 2343, Kigali, Rwand

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What are the Obligations of Professors to Reveal their Personal Philosophies of Life to Students?

by Dr. Otto J. Helweg


A professor has a privileged position and influences students in ways of which most professors are unaware. With this position comes an obligation to not abuse the power to influence, but is there not also an obligation to reveal ones personal philosophy to life? One might argue that if a professor does not consciously disclose his or her biases, they will be communicated to students anyway and in a form which may not be as accurate as if they were openly discussed.

Complicating the obligation of professors to be more than mere purveyors of knowledge, is the position of Christian professors who often feel obligated to avoid any religious content in their courses, even courses linked to religious themes. Presently, this attitude is being reenforced by certain organizations such as the ACLU, who attempt to remove religious influence from public schools. This posture is a radical change when compared with the history of education in general and modern higher education in particular.

Religious Heritage of the Modern University (Kneller, 1958)
When the invention of letters precipitated formal education, it was fostered (and limited) by the priesthood, free citizens, etc. Greek education was the first to transfer education to secular control; however, even then, the pantheon was an integral part of the curriculum. It was Christianity that introduced education to the underprivileged. During the "age of faith" or the Middle Ages, the primary emphasis was on moral training. Later, the renaissance reintroduced an interest in the classics, such as Aristotelian logic, etc.

Gradually the modern university evolved via the German Gymnasiem and the French colleges. Again, Christianity introduced the moral equality of men and women, but it was much later that women found acceptance into higher education.

Public education in the United States was an out growth of the Reformation.

"The Puritans... were determined that children should receive sufficient education to insure their ability to read the Bible and participate in religious services." (Kneller, 1958)

One remarkable event was a law in 1642 which imposed a fine if children were not taught; "to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the country." (Cubberly, 1920) This was the first time in the English speaking world that a legislative body ordered that all children should be taught to read.

The first college in the United States was authorized by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1636 to,

"advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust."
(Kneller, 1958) [bold, mine]

Later this college became "Harvard" in memory of the young clergyman, John Harvard who had died leaving his books and a sum of money to the school.

In 1701 Yale was establish with the purpose to fit the youth of the colony, "for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State." In fact, with almost all of the early institutions of high education in the United States, "Religion was the strongest determinant of purpose and content." (Kneller, 1958)

It was the Dartmouth College case in 1819 that started the cleavage between public and private education. This decision guaranteed private ownership of institutions of learning and guarded them from encroachment by the state. Since that time, there has been a gradual secularization of higher education until the present professorate and student body are generally unaware of the religious heritage and foundation of colleges and universities. Though some may applaud this trend, it is not without a cost as the Carnegie Foundation report has concluded.

The University as in loco parentis
The Carnegie Foundation launched a major effort to investigate the malaise of the present system of higher education (Boyer, 1987). The authors of the final report repeat, time and again, that the university has evolved away from being an institution that speaks to the whole man and has, instead, become an impersonal environment to students crying for existential answers (Boyer, 1987). Boyer feels that the colleges "have lost their sense of purpose" and quotes Archibald MacLeish as saying, "There can be no educational postulates so long as there are no generally accepted postulates of life itself."

The researchers found "a great separation, sometimes to the point of isolation, between academic and social life on campus." Faculty and administrators are confused about their obligations in nonacademic matters. This lead Boyer to ask, "How can the undergraduate college help students gain perspective and prepare them to meet their civic and social obligations in the neighborhood, the nation, and the world?" There are, of course, other concerns such as the tension between teaching and research, but the question this paper addresses is whether the university is more than a place where knowledge is imparted. Is it not also a place where young people are challenged to ask, "How ought I to live?" "Who am I?" "What meaning, if any, does life have?"

The Professor as Mentor
Mentor was the wise advisor to Odysseus and teacher to his son, Telemachus. Mentor accompanied Telemachus on long journeys, teaching him more than formal subjects, but endeavoring to make him a complete adult; teaching him how to live. If the present-day mentors follow the example of their namesake, they will be involved in every aspect of the student's life. The question, is whether or not the role of a professor entails mentoring. It seems as though Boyer would say, "yes." He writes, "Still, there remains a vision of the undergraduate college as a place where teachers care about their students..." He further says,

"The American college is, we believe, ready for renewal, and there is an urgency to the task. The nation's colleges have been successful in responding to diversity and in meeting the needs of individual students. They have been much less attentive to the larger, more transcendent issues that give meaning to existence and help students put their own lives in perspective."

Professors have been the target of extreme criticism by those decrying the present state of higher education. For example Sykes (1988) says;

"In the midst of this wasteland [university] stands the professor. Almost single-handedly, the professors - working steadily and systematically - have desolated higher education, which no longer is higher or much of an education."

On the positive side, yet illustrating the paucity of professors who care, is the statement of a Memphis State University student on his course evaluation which said;

"I felt that he [the professor] was a breath of fresh air. He cares about his students and whether or not they learn the material. He is a very effective teacher - an exception these days! [bold mine]

As a department chairman, I have noticed that students quickly identify and appreciate professors who are concerned about them as individuals, especially when this concern is expressed outside of class and beyond the subject area.

The Christian as Professor
Steven N. Cahn argues that instead of shielding students from error, they should be subjected to all views. He quotes John Stewart Mill "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that." (Cahn, 1986) If Christian professors do not offer their beliefs, theological as well as philosophical, for students to consider, they have deprived students of, perhaps, the most important view of all. Students who have not been exposed to all major world views, have to select the one they would follow with incomplete data.

It is clear espousing political, philosophical, or theological positions in classes not dealing with those subjects should be carefully monitored and controlled, but NOT eliminated. The above discussion has shown the need for more than mere data transfer in institutions of higher learning and professors (in all disciplines) should be obligated to satisfy this need.

To balance this, however, is the ethical obligation of professors to not exploit their position of power to indoctrinate a captive audience with their biases, whether political, religious, social, etc. Nevertheless, it would seem that professors who submit their world views for students' consideration are being more honest and demonstrating more concern for the total student than professors who do not. Do not professors owe that minimum involvement to theirs students? Professors who are willing to go beyond this would give students the opportunity to interact with them in a social environment outside of class.

It requires good judgement to determine how much or how often a professor reveals his or her biases in class. Certainly, professors are not legally obligated to conduct extracurricular discussions; however, their ethical obligation is another matter. Should not Christian professors have more motivation to bridge the gap decried by Boyer, than professors who either have no articulated philosophy of life, a non-Christian philosophy, or a philosophy to which they are not committed? If this is so, who will initiate the process of "extra academic" interaction if they do not?


Ernest L. Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, Harper & Rowe: NY; 1987

Steven M. Cahn, Saints and Scamps; Ethics in Academia, Rowman & Littlefield: Totowa; 1986

E. P. Cubberly, The History of Education, Boston; 1920

A. L. Deneff, C. D. Goodwin, and E. S. McCrate, eds., The Academics Handbook, Duke University Press: Durham; 1988

G. F. Kneller, "Education," Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 9, Americana Corp.: NY; 1958

C. J. Sykes, ProfScam, Regnery Gateway: Washington; 1988

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