Some months back, I came across the Poznan Declaration on “Whole-of-University Promotion of Social Capital, Health and Development,” which its proponents describe as “a formal statement aimed at mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education.” (I’d meant to write about it earlier, but I got sidetracked by a relatively peripheral reference in the Declaration to changes in national corruption levels.) In general, I like the idea of promoting anticorruption norms through education, and as a university professor I’m naturally sympathetic to (and flattered by) the idea that university education could make a big difference here. And insofar as the main objective of the Poznan Declaration’s supporters is to promote more discussion among university faculty and administrators in different countries about these issues, I’m all for it.
Yet in reading the Declaration, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of nagging skepticism about some of the implicit premises behind the enterprise. Let me see if I can try to articulate some of the reasons, and perhaps invite some of the proponents of the Poznan Declaration, and the more general push to incorporate “anticorruption education” in the university curriculum, to respond.
The first question I have is what, exactly, the “value-based education” envisioned by the Poznan Declaration would actually look like. I’ve found it’s often difficult to nail down the proponents of anticorruption education (especially at the university level – it’s actually a bit easier at the elementary school level) to specify exactly what an anticorruption curriculum would attempt to teach, and how. The Poznan Declaration is actually a bit better than other advocacy documents on this issue, in that it at least tries to sketch out the elements of such a curriculum. The Declaration says that the curriculum “could comprise complementary educational approaches, such as the dissemination of hard data, seminars discussing basic values and ethics, and case studies,” and suggests more specifically (1) presenting data on the “strong relationship between levels of corruption [… ], and health and development,” (2) raising awareness of domestic anticorruption legislation and international treaties, and (3) holding “discussion seminars on which values and norms we want to govern our social interactions, and what they mean in particular situations.” But as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about course design in other contexts, I’m still hard-pressed to envision exactly what an effective university course would look like here. Perhaps before we get ahead of ourselves in calling on all universities to adopt a curriculum like this, we could get some examples of actual, complete syllabi (not just suggested readings or case studies)? The website on supporting documents for the Poznan Declaration has links to various case studies, documents, and “e-learning tools”, but so far as I can tell, no links to any actual course syllabi.
Of course – though this is mostly a side point – many professional schools (at least in the US, and I’m assuming elsewhere) already have professional ethics classes. Such classes are a required part of the curriculum in US law schools, business schools, medical schools, etc. It’s not clear how well they work, but at least they exist. Oddly, the Poznan Declaration doesn’t have much of anything to say about these existing parts of professional school curricula, even though they would seem to be directly relevant to the larger project.
But the next really big question I have is why we believe that teaching anticorruption materials in the classroom would help all that much. The Poznan Declaration states that if most university graduates “have received training in anti-corruption, it is possible that social trust and social capital will be promoted, leading to a virtuous circle form which national health and development stands to benefit.” Well, maybe. Or maybe not. University education is not like magic – it’s not like we faculty members stand up and wave our wands and impart knowledge (let alone values!) to our students. It’s hard for me to imagine that if an instructor did the things the Poznan Declaration advocates – tells the students the corruption is bad for the country’s economy, tells them that it’s against domestic and international law, has them discuss values and hard choices – that this will make much of a dent in countries where corruption is pervasive, and where the social and material incentives strongly encourage corrupt behavior and discourage integrity. Moreover, contrary to stereotypes, it is generally not the case that corruption is considered legitimate behavior in most countries. It may be widespread, and grudgingly tolerated – and perhaps for that reason the social opprobrium or personal guilt for engaging in corrupt behavior is lower than we would like – but the idea that people (especially people entering university) need to be told that corruption is bad and illegal, and that if they are so informed they will not be corrupt, strikes me as implausible. Now, maybe my skepticism is unwarranted, but – as I’ve written before – it would be nice to at least try to conduct some experiments, or serious research of any kind, on the impact of various curricular or pedagogical reforms before we charge ahead.
One other concern, also related to something I’ve written about before: There’s a tension between the Poznan Declaration’s emphasis on teaching students to have the right values – teaching them not to be corrupt – and teaching them to hone their critical thinking skills. The Poznan Declaration itself supplies an example, in that it emphasizes repeatedly the importance of teaching students corruption and lack of social trust are bad for development. Now, I happen to believe (strongly) that this is true – at least the corruption part (the social trust literature is much murkier than the Declaration lets on). But I also view it as an empirical research question, about which there are certainly many legitimate concerns about the data, alternative explanations, etc. The more pressure we put on instructors to teach these social science questions in a way that leads students in a particular direction, so as to shape the students’ values, the more we may be undermining, perhaps unintentionally, the cultivation of skeptical critical thinking that is also an essential part of a university education.
This may seem like paranoia, but I don’t think it is. A personal anecdote: I was at a conference recently where I was discussing issues related to the potential politicization of anticorruption agencies. Two prominent anticorruption activists basically told me, in so many words, that they were deeply disturbed that I might ever raise these issues with my students (even though my classroom teaching was not even part of the discussion before that point); they accused me, in quite sharp language, of contributing to the “culture of impunity” by even allowing my students to consider whether accusations of political bias against anticorruption agencies could ever be worth taking seriously. Now, that was a bit extreme, and the dozen-odd other anticorruption activists in the room immediately leapt to my defense and spoke up in favor of open debate on all these questions. But I do think it illustrates the fact that when people start viewing university education primarily as a way to impart (anticorruption) values, they may have an urge to want to shut down certain conversations, or not explore certain hard questions, for fear that broaching these topics might muddy up the inculcation of values.
Finally, there is one point where I am in 100% agreement with the authors and proponents of the Poznan Declaration, and that is the need to act more aggressively to root out corruption within the universities themselves. As the Poznan Declaration puts it, universities need to “talk the talk and walk the walk” by “ensuring impartiality in teaching, student assessment, [and] research[,] and [ensuring] that matters regarding awards of degrees, employment and promotions are based on legitimate, transparent and objective criteria.” To my mind, this should be at the very top of the agenda for university-centered anticorruption approach, not at the bottom. (In the Declaration, it appears as the very last bullet point of the “To Do” list on the last page, and is not addressed anywhere else in the document.) Students, especially university students, tend to be hyper-aware of hypocrisy in all its forms. It’s hopeless, and perhaps even counterproductive, to push an anticorruption curriculum in a university where students regularly pay bribes for grades or admission, where cheating and plagiarism are rampant, and where other forms of corruption and dishonesty are widespread. Indeed, I would much prefer the Poznan Declaration’s supporters to refocus their attention and efforts almost entirely on fighting corruption within the university, rather than trying to use university courses to teach anticorruption norms. Some civil society organizations, such as Not in My Country, have taken up the issue of fighting corruption within universities, and they could use support. While the two approaches are certainly not mutually exclusive, I tend to think that focusing on fighting corruption within the education sector will do more to spread anticorruption norms than will the creation of anticorruption courses and curricula.