I've often begun ethics classes by having my students write about something that they've done that they believe to have been wrong, explaining why they think it was wrong. It gets them into the mode of having to give reasons for their moral views. This semester I decided to supplement that assignment by having them write a week later about someone they admire and respect or some action they respect, explaining why they find that person, trait, or action admirable. It captures a kind of ethical thinking that I think a lot of ethics classes will downplay because of their focus on what factors make an action wrong. There isn't as much emphasis on good-making features of actions, character traits, and so on in contemporary ethical theorizing.
I was very surprised by the results, and I'd be interested to see if this happens with a different kind of group. I'm teaching a junior-level class, and all these students have had at least two philosophy classes that are supposed to be heavy on the history of philosophy. I wonder if newly-arrived freshmen would answer the same way. Still, it was a little unexpected to find that 19 out of 43 students who did the assignment had chosen a parent (or both parents in one case). These were about evenly split between mothers and fathers. Another 10 were other family members (a sister, two brothers, a grandmother, three grandfathers, an uncle, and a cousin). Five chose friends and one an unrelated, older role model. Two were about complete strangers they'd interacted with or observed. One was amorphous, just listing character traits. Five were famous people (Max Roach, Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Lynch, Abraham Lincoln, and professional baseball players as a whole).
For some reason it didn't surprise me that a lot had chosen family members, but this was overwhelmingly family-heavy, and the bulk of the family members chosen were parents or grandparents, with parents occupying the most (almost half of the responses). I expected a lot more than three contemporary celebrities, but I guess it's not so surprising that most people don't see celebrities as heroes to respect or admire. Most celebrities aren't all that worthy of respect and admiration.
But my question is this. Is this a reflection of a cultural change? Are college students now all of a sudden more respectful of parents than we've been led to believe? Common wisdom among those I spend a lot of time with think there's very little respect for parents among young people. Or is it something that wasn't ever really true to begin with? Or is this something due to a change as students move out from their families and live on their own, now seeing their parents in a more accurate way? Or is it something particular about this group of students because they're at a Jesuit institute of higher learning?