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Northwestern University

The Brady Program

Learning What it Means to be Good

Several years ago, Weinberg College alumna Deborah Brady, like many of us, was concerned about the ethics of leaders in politics, business, law, science and medicine. Why do so many succumb to temptation, deceit, or dishonesty? Wanting to make a difference in the next generation of leaders, Debbie and Larry Brady generously established a program that is already changing the way a group of students at Northwestern think. As they master the methods of scientific research and excel in creative endeavors in the arts along with their fellow Northwestern students, Brady scholars also ponder what it means to be good.

It is one thing to think about the Good; it is quite another to build a curriculum around it. Bioethicist and professor of religion Laurie Zoloth considers it a privilege to direct the program. “It’s not often in a scholarly life that you’re told, ‘Here is an extraordinary gift; go think about how to fix this problem.’ What would be the ideal thing to teach? How do you teach it? How do you inspire people to be good? What does it mean to be good?”

The Brady Program in Ethics and Civic Life is a three-year course of study and practical experience which, in its first year, supports 16 undergraduates in Weinberg College, 4 graduate student fellows who advise them, and 3 faculty members who teach them. Students apply as freshmen and are chosen on the basis of their records and a challenging essay. (As they become juniors and then seniors, and new classes of students are selected, the program will include 48 undergraduates.) Sophomore year offers intense quarterly seminars, junior year is spent abroad, and in the senior year, students develop a project to benefit the local community.

In just a year, the idea has taken on a very concrete shape. There is near-daily interaction among the Brady students from class, to “Brady Blogging” and “Brady Brunching.” To expand discussions and debates that emerge in class, or to hash out the ethics of current events, Wimbledon-born Sam Fleischacker, Brady Distinguished Visiting Professor in 2008-09, started the tradition of weekly informal teas, complete with home-baked goods. Recently at one of these gatherings, the students shared their experiences in the program. They had been asked in their admission application to describe a situation in which someone acted in a good way and explain why they judged the act to be good. In a year’s time, had their answers changed?

“I thought I was thinking hard about this at the time, but now I realize it’s a deeper, more complicated question,” says sophomore Eddie Siegel, echoing the thoughts of some of his classmates.

Natalie Noble adds, “When I look at my Brady admissions essay, I notice that my definition of a good act was very broad. I only considered the interaction between the self and the other, and some vague idea of ‘selflessness.’ The Brady Program breaks down the notion of ‘the good act’ into parts. Now I think about goodness on levels I had never before considered, including how one’s own motivation for an act can determine its goodness.”

The academic core of sophomore year is designed to examine the way classic traditions in humanities reflect on ethics and civic life. In the fall, the students focused on “The Good One: Self-Understanding and Self-Deceit in the Moral Life”: how can one person be a good moral agent, even when alone or unobserved? And when one thinks he is doing something good, is he really? Professor Fleischacker, who teaches moral and political philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led the seminar, one that most Brady students found challenging.  

Weinberg sophomore Stephanie Letzler thought the class stressful and confusing at first, but she, like most in the program, adjusted to the language of philosophy. As a result, they approach ideas in a new way, using strong, vigorous analysis—and a great deal of honesty. Both trust and knowledge of each other develop naturally when discussions and debates go to the very core of who you are, and students have come to like it. “In the Brady class, you have to have an emotional investment,” offered Letzler, “Other classes don’t ask that of you.”

Laurie Zoloth’s second quarter seminar, “The Good Neighbor: Self and Other in the Actual World” examined what makes a good act good. What do we owe one another in families, in our communities, in our world?

“Professor Zoloth’s class invited us to examine the ethics of interpersonal relationships in a variety of environments,” explains Brady scholar Ben Armstrong. “The course left me grappling with the meaning and consequences of human interaction—it challenged us to define, justify and promote the good. Classroom discussion was not an end in itself; it has prompted us to continue engaging with ethical questions as we meet new people and new challenges in our lives.”

The spring quarter seminar, taught by Northwestern philosophy professor Cristina Lafont, focused on “The Good Place: Rethinking Democracy after Globalization.” Attention centered on ethical and social issues related to the environment, the nation, and global affairs. This seminar, in particular, will ready Brady students for the junior year, when they will spend all or part of the year abroad. In the country of their choice, they will reflect with a philosopher, ethicist, or humanities scholar, with whom they have been paired, about ethics and civic life there and in our own country. They will think about the scope and complexity of the world and about how particular societies and cultures approach daunting problems. The individual experiences of the students will then be shared in a retreat. Students will be sent to five continents over the course of the coming year.

The complexion of the group is diverse in religion, race, and gender. They read the same texts and complete the same assignments, yet perceptions and interpretations of the material can be quite different. Through vigorous debate, the process promotes understanding. As a result of both the seminars and their many social interactions, a bond has developed over time—precisely what Debbie Brady had in mind.

“Larry and I are excited about the intellectual curiosity and energy of students and faculty in the program. It seems a miracle to see our dream becoming reality,” says Brady. “But until the students have had the real life experience of living out their values, and of leading and influencing others, it will be impossible to judge it a success. The program is not about education, but about the influence that education can have on future behaviors.”

Kathleen Arbuckle is Brady Scholars’ program assistant, a position she eagerly sought after learning about the program’s unique focus and potential. She is an artist, wife, and mother of three.


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