Isaac Sharpless and the Psychology 109HyperSyllabus
Doug Davis

"I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught, whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgments. For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organization, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgments."

President Isaac Sharpless
Haverford College Commencement, 1888

Haverford Faculty Meeting. In my early years at Haverford, to pass that long piece of monthly faculty meeting between 5:15 and 5:45 p.m., I would look across the Common Room at the framed words ofIsaac Sharpless above the fireplace. This was the ‘70s, by the way, and we were engaged in important (if at times Baroque), debates over Expansion, Coeducation, and Diversity. I’d find myself thinking about Issac, there in front of the Class of ’88. How puzzling,to be reminded -- in the banal fashion of all commencement speakers -- that one had been taught to "preach truth, and do righteousness"; and then to be told that one should constantly and conscientiously challenge that teaching at every mile post.  I found after a year or two of this that I could recite president Sharpless's famous words from memory, and I reflected from time to time how intriguing and puzzling they were. Isaac Sharpless became a kind of hobby with me, abetted by living in his house at 791 College Avenue and occupying an office in the building named for him. I’d sometimes point students to the commencement quote in the Haverford catalogue, and occasionally I’d find myself in First Day Meeting musing about his words: could we live with a society of people who were capable of holding to an emotional or an intellectual position with such conviction that they would not yield one Iota of the “moral freedom” of their conscience to join a consensus about some important idea?

The Psychology 109 Syllabus. Each year, usually in the first half of the spring semester, I teach  a large introductory psychology course titled "Foundations of Personality."  In this course, as in my mid-level course in the Psychology of Adolescence,I present a brief treatment of moral development theory ala Lawrence Kohlberg.  Kohlberg divided the life span into three stages with regard to moral decision-making: Pre-conventional, Conventional, and Post-conventional.  Each of the stages is subdivided, yielding a total of 6 stages of moral development through at least the first several of which all humans are alleged to pass.  We spend early childhood, according to this theory, learning first to satisfy our own needs and then to do so without incurring punishment. We each acquire, in our elementary and secondary school years, an increasingly rich ethical perspective, from which we learn to value acting in concert with members of our social group and with what we perceive to be the benefit of people in general.  Finally, under the ideal circumstances of high-quality college education or some years of post-graduate experience working in the "real world," some of us -- some of the time -- move beyond conventional moral thinking to a point where we can occasionally act against the consensus out of conscientious objection.  Most humans, though, are solidly conventional in the moral positions they hold and in most of their behavior. Most people, at least in this country, find it hard to fully understand or credit acts that violate well-founded laws concerning, say, the payment of taxes or submission to ser vein the military. On the other hand, consider what a small group of young men graduating from a Quaker college on the Main Line heard, a century ago …

The Web. In the Fall of ’94, just back from a Rabat conference on “The First Days of the Internet in Morocco,” I wrote a short piece for Webster's Weekly (the first weekly features magazine of the Web, created by Brian Knatz, ‘90) about my initial attempt to teach Psych 109 (which usually enrolls about a hundred students, mostly Frosh) from a Web page rather than from course notes and handouts. That Spring, 1995, semester of “Foundations of Personality” kept me jumping to develop at least some linked resources for each lecture, to lead students through the arcana of Netscape 1.0, to respond to a course newsgroup, and to fix broken links. Looking for a way to illustrate Kohlberg’s Stage 6, I found myself thinking of Isaac Sharpless. Now, five years into the Web and the HyperSyllabus, I get email from high school students and West Point cadets who have gone looking for Kohlberg, or Sharpless, and found me. I’ve decided the Web has something important to do with my life as a teacher, and as a Friend.

[1] This short essay exists in two forms: a printed page in the Rufus Jones Newsletter, and a Web page. In the latter version, each of the underlined items in the last paragraph may be clicked to load a linked resource from the Internet.