On ‘Moral Education’

President Robin Baker and Dr. Thomas Peng pose in front of a statue of Mao Zedong.

Midway through our recent trip to China we participated in the Second International Conference on the Internationalization of Higher Education at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Dr. Thomas Peng often asks me to speak when we are traveling at various universities. Usually my talks are more informal in character and are intended to advance the interest of George Fox. So, I was thinking this assignment would be of the same nature.

When we arrived at a nice hotel in Guangzhou, I was provided with the schedule for the conference and broke out in a cold sweat. The conference was hosted by Guangdong University and included presidents from nine institutions primarily from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. I was the American representative on higher education and would be speaking to more than 300 delegates first thing in the morning! I had the core of a talk developed, and I refined it over one long night in order to be ready for the morning. Fortunately it was received well, but I was sweating the entire presentation!

In addition to providing a lecture I had the opportunity to listen to numerous papers, and I found one to be very engaging: “A Solution to Both Moral Education and Language Learning in International Education,” by Dr. Qin Yuan of Guangdong University. Dr. Yuan noted that Chinese educators were noticing an increasing lack of moral commitment in Chinese students now coming to the universities. Thus, educators were exploring new ways to engage students in important moral conversations. Dr. Yuan is teaching English at Guangdong University and has the students work on three projects that require “moral” thinking. In one writing project, she has the students engage people who are begging or asking for money to see why they are seeking help. The students then write about the experience. She also has them study the problem of pollution in Chinese rivers and to consider whether it is a “moral” problem that demands a response. In each case, the students were asked to engage a real-world issue, develop their own response, and then write about the experience – very thoughtful work.

After her presentation, we were able to get into a significant dialogue during the question and answer time. I wanted to know if she had the students consider why they should be “moral” at all. It begs the question: Does she have the students think about a philosophy undergirding moral commitments? Dr. Yuan noted that she really did not consider this approach and in fact had a difficult time thinking about how this would work. She talked about the Chinese government requirement that all students take communist philosophy in the university setting, but she was unsure of how this might relate to her assignment. She was curious as to how we might approach this in the United States.

This gave me the opportunity to talk with the group about the nature of faith-based education and how our moral values and commitment are rooted in deeply held religious beliefs grounded in the biblical text and experience. You can imagine that, for me, this was an exciting conversation. One of the reasons I serve at a place like George Fox is our commitment to “holiness.” Christ requires us to consistently ask what is right and what is good for the individual and the community. I believe passionately in the undergraduate general education program because we do provide students with a foundation for life well-lived in Christ.

As I was leaving China from the Guangzhou airport, an interesting thing happened to me. I was sitting in one of the many chairs waiting for the flight to board and my phone slipped out of my pocket onto the chair without my noticing. When it was my time to board I got up and got in line. While in line, a Chinese man came up to me and tried to tell me something. I had a very difficult time understanding what he was trying to say. Finally, he put his hand up to his ear and acted like he was talking on a phone. I grabbed my pockets, and sure enough, my cell phone was not there. He pointed to where I was sitting, I ran back and, although I had been gone for 10 minutes, it was still there. The gentleman who approached me had no reason to take the time to let me know that I had left my phone. He took the risk, and I was very appreciative. I left China believing that the moral climate was perhaps a little better than I had been led to believe!

I am excited about our Chinese partnerships because they help us engage more in a global context. As I see it, one of the ways we can contribute most to our partners is to create a conversation about the nature of moral education in a university setting.

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