I just got back from a talk to our entire student body by Michael Sandel. He gave an interactive lecture very much like the ones you can watch online here, going over the trolley problem (plus fat man on the bridge), the question whether soldiers should risk being killed or instead kill civilians who discover their position, and whether one should help the police find and arrest one's mobster brother. It was all very well done and got the students thinking (as far as I can tell). One said it was the best talk by an outside speaker he had ever heard. But it wasn't quite the way Sandel's lectures appear to go at Harvard.
One thing I noticed was how few of our students were willing to raise their hands to speak in defense of their views. Sandel has the audience vote for one of two options, and plenty of people voted, but he then invites people to explain why they voted as they did. In the lectures online many more hands go up than did today at VMI. Are our students more shy? Less interested in argument, debate, and questions of principle? Or does it take the Harvard students time to warm up too?
Those who did speak often seemed more interested in entertaining the audience than in giving a serious answer. So this seems like an aspect of the first issue really: few of our students wanted to give a serious answer to a serious question (even though there are human beings who enjoy this kind of thing, not all of them particularly intelligent). I don't think intelligence is the issue, but perhaps the kind of intelligence involved is rarer here. I don't know.
And then the answers themselves were not what I might have hoped for. I think the majority voted that soldiers should murder civilians rather than risk being killed. This is understandable, but not the noblest view one could take. Nor is it what the Army teaches at West Point, as far as I know.
[pause while I go and teach]
The students in the class I just taught expressed frustration with Sandel's wanting to make every situation a black and white one. You either kill five or you kill one with the trolley, for instance. There is no shouting warnings or anything like that. I'm glad they want realistic examples and more options. But I also understand why Sandel wants to resist this kind of objection. It's a refusal to play his game, and the point of the game is to generate thought and discussion about principles. If principles matter at all then this is a good point for a game to have.
But it is a game. And it takes a certain kind of person to be willing to play such a game while also taking it seriously. Perhaps Harvard has more people like that than we do. If that is what the difference comes down to, then I don't think either VMI or Harvard necessarily has any reason to be ashamed of the difference.