Textbooks Behaving Badly

Are academic textbooks important in deciding the fate of nations?  Three of the last century's most celebrated intellectuals answered that question strongly in the affirmative.  In 1944, for example, C.S. Lewis penned his most profound literary work, The Abolition of Man, in response to a new textbook about to hit the shelves in England.  For Lewis, the rather subversive new English primer seemed dedicated to making a "clean sweep of traditional values," including the very notion of objective, universal laws of nature.  Lewis was worried that the "practical result" of the textbook's influence "must be the destruction of the society which accepts it."

Across the Atlantic a few years later, a young Yale graduate named William F. Buckley launched his exceptional career by exposing the highly partisan and statist-friendly textbooks that formed the bulk of his curriculum there.  In God and Man at Yale, Buckley presented a compelling case that the university, under the guise of academic freedom, seemed "dedicated to the task of persuading" the students into becoming "atheistic socialists."

Chinese writer and philosopher Lin Yutang issued similar concerns when gathering information in China for his book My Country and My People in the 1930s.  He found it odd when studying China's educational system that "communism" seemed to be "coloring the thought of practically all primary school teachers in the country."  Soon after Mao's victory in 1950, according to a former Chinese professor of mine who fled to Taiwan, new textbooks were issued with the warning "Chairman Mao is Your New Father and Mother" inscribed on the inside cover.

Today, the assault on both traditional values and the free market continues in many conventional college textbooks, making it difficult for academia's most visible minority, conservative professors, to locate ideologically balanced anthologies.

In the fashionable field of ethics, for example, textbooks and anthologies tend to be saturated with a liberal edge that relentlessly grinds away at thinly presented conservative perspectives on social issues until the very final pages.  This approach pervades even the standard and most popular ethics textbook for America's undergraduates: The Elements of Moral Philosophy, written by Dr. James Rachels (now deceased) and his son Dr. Stuart Rachels, who teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama.

In a section of Rachels' book entitled "Justice and Fairness," Rachels claims without offering any opposing arguments that "people do not deserve their native endowments," and therefore any free-market rewards based upon "superior intelligence" or "the right DNA" or "physical beauty" or "being raised by the right parents" is ultimately "not fair."  Employers, in other words, are not being "fair" if they promote -- in the name of the company's needs -- a more naturally talented and useful employee over a less useful and less talented employee who "worked harder."  Rachels argues that the less talented employee would "rightly feel cheated" if passed over, because the more talented employee "did nothing to earn" the promotion.   

To defend his argument, Rachels provides nothing other than the name "John Rawls" and Rawls' claim in his 1972 book A Theory of Justice that such advantages as native endowments and having the right parents are the arbitrary and undeserved results of "the natural lottery."  Indeed, on his professional website, Dr. Rachels defends the one-sided presentation of some issues by simply noting that among other reasons, the "pro-con" structure of many anthologies "suggests to students that equally good arguments exist on every side of every issue." 

For Dr. Rachels, then, Rawls' actual claim in A Theory of Justice that the "idea of equal opportunity inclines in the direction" of "abolishing" the nuclear family (i.e., eliminating the inequality of having the "right parents") merits no additional discussion in Rachels' book.  No word from Dr. Rachels either on the size and scope of the state that would be necessary to track and redistribute the citizens' "unearned" rewards to the rest of the community.  The important thing is mostly to demonstrate one's concern for "fairness."

As Allan Bloom cogently observed years ago, since for Rawls "society must take on the whole burden of providing and distributing the elements of happiness," a more appropriate title for Rawls' book would be A First Philosophy for the Last Man

In the related and growing field of "Business Ethics," the burden of moral proof again is on the defenders of tradition -- in this case the free-market tradition.  For example, in his popular book Business Ethics Now, Argosy University professor Dr. Andrew Ghillyer considers toward the middle of his book whether "students of business ethics can be forgiven for wondering if corporations can ever be counted on to 'do the right thing.'"

In doing the right thing, however, Ghillyer finds little support from the history of traditional moral theory.  The combined ethical traditions of Greek Virtue Theory, Utilitarianism, Kantian Deontology, and the Golden Rule (as expressed in Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism) are all presented and dismissed on one page early in Ghillyer's textbook. 

Ghillyer's curt dismissal of the Golden Rule, for example, rests on the following dilemma: if a man had the integrity to return a lost wallet, his "ethical ideal" could get him "into trouble" because he couldn't be sure that someone else would make the same effort on his behalf.  Utilitarianism is tossed aside by Ghillyer on the single specious claim that Adolf Hitler "launched a national genocide" in the name of utilitarianism.  Ghillyer seems unaware that J.S. Mill, in his classic, Utilitarianism, makes the case that "in Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility" -- in other words, the spirit of the "impartial, disinterested, and benevolent spectator."

Ghillyer in the end, however, is reduced to favoring  a "personal value system" that is based on "the cumulative experience" of person's life.  He does provide an eight-step model to follow when confronted with a business ethics dilemma, the first step of which -- gathering facts -- Ghillyer himself surely violates when discussing the October 2008 financial collapse.

For Ghillyer, it was "corporate arrogance" and "aggressive lending" in a "deregulated environment" that ultimately caused the market crash.  What's worse, "Republican opposition and aggressive lobbying by Wall Street companies ('Big Finance')" were designed to "weaken" the tough "U.S. government" response to the crisis led in congress by the Dodd-Frank reform bill.

Ghillyer's textbook, published in 2012, fails to mention in its 250 pages Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or any of the Republicans during the ten years prior to Dodd-Frank who pleaded in the face of Democrat opposition for subprime regulatory reform, including Senators Chuck Hagel, Elizabeth Dole, John Sununu, John McCain, Rep. Richard Baker, Alan Greenspan, or even President Bush, who called on Congress in 2007 to pass legislation that "strengthens independent regulation of the GSEs."

Friedrich Hayek said back in 1944 that the "daily experience of the university teacher leaves little doubt that, as a result of anticapitalist propaganda, values have already altered far in advance of the change in institutions which has so far taken place." 

For Lin Yutang, the socialism that "colored" the thinking of 1930s schoolteachers in China preceded Mao's final institutional victory by about twenty years. 

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