Friday, August 12, 2011

The Morals We Want and the Morals We Have

The Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice
A comment on my last post brought up some questions that I want to address publicly. Discussing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments to the House of Lords on the need for better moral education in British schools, one of my readers had this to say:
The ‘civic excellence’ [the Archbishop] wants is a collective virtue, not just an individual one. To achieve it, the British would not only have to educate their poor in values, they would have to look seriously at the values of the society, including those that tolerate economic deprivation and isolation.
I agree with that assessment, and I think it raises an interesting issue that another commenter on this blog has been trying to raise in another thread and which I have been a little slow to hear: namely, the dissonance between the morals we want to teach to kids and the morals reflected by the society as a whole.

The problem is both pressing and troublesome. It’s troublesome because addressing it entails a broad critique of our society’s moral values, a project which falls well outside the scope of this blog and which is nearly impossible to pursue without descending into highly contentious terrain. It is pressing for a closely related reason: because the dwindling of shared mores has led many observers and educators—from the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the leaders of the No-Excuses movement, to Ted Sizer and his comrades in the neo-progressive Essential Schools movement—to advocate stronger moral education in the schools.

To paint in broad, cursory strokes, then: we want to teach children the values of discipline, cooperation, respect, responsibility, etc. but the society does not seem to hold those values. We do not value or practice discipline: think of the quick fixes with which we try to improve our schools, the sudden, miraculous routes to wealth depicted in media and advertising—winning the lottery, gaming the stock-market, starting a multi-billion-dollar company in your basement. We discourage cooperation: self-interest and competition are the society’s watchwords. We do not practice respect: media and advertising are brash, rude, vulgar, and lurid; indeed, they frequently aim to offend, to lambast precisely what was once held sacred; one in twenty people will stand up to give an older person a seat on the subway; it is unclear what, if anything, we venerate. We are irresponsible: our government is in massive debt to other nations, as is our citizenry to its credit-card companies; we eat to excess, and obesity is rampant; we use resources with little concern for the limits of their supply.

I’ve probably given people plenty to argue with in that last paragraph, but the specifics are not the point. I think anyone whose view of morality is not wholly relativistic will agree that the society has little in the way of a shared moral code. To teach morals in an amoral country is difficult, but we do it, presumably, because we dream of a more moral society—one, for example, in which disaffected mobs of teenagers don’t set fire to their own neighborhoods in our nations’ capitals. But we must keep in mind the danger of hypocrisy, the precariousness of the project: we’re trying to teach our children to be the upstanding citizens that we ourselves—on the aggregate, if not individually—are not. We’re asking them to be, not merely better than they are, but better than the world they see around them. It’s a lot to ask—especially when we ask it most loudly and most repeatedly of those who have been offered the fewest opportunities and suffered the greatest handicaps at the youngest ages.

Maybe that doesn’t change much: we will still teach moral values, we will still hope that children will imbibe them. We do what we can, of course. When we think about how to teach those values, however, an awareness of their absence in the society at large will aid us; it will allow us to present them in a way that is not, as the commenter quoted above puts it, condescending and to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy that might otherwise undermine our efforts.

9 comments:

  1. Before I answer more generally, I'm wondering if you think that this lack of shared moral code is new. Certainly, all the attributes you describe have been here since the founding.

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  2. Hi Cal,

    As I said in my post, I was reluctant to open up this whole topic, because it strikes me as one that could prove highly contentious. I’m into building consensus, not because I always want people to agree, but because I think highly contentious positions tend to be narrow—they see only part of the picture, and that’s why they’re contentious. On top of that, while I do stick to what I said in the above post, I think it’s far from the most important point I’ve ever made on this blog. It doesn’t really change my position on moral education. It’s a side note, a nuance.

    That said, yes, I do think the lack of a shared moral code—or at least the sparseness of that code—is new. I think that the pluralism and relativism embraced by American society in the past half-century or so largely did away with the dominant culture that, oppressive as it may have been, provided a common set of values and a common code of conduct. I also think that traditional sources of moral authority—the church, the community—have weakened or lost influence over the past hundred years. (The religions now dominant in America seem to be more concerned with a personal relationship with god than with a prescribed moral codes—I’m going way out on a limb with that last claim; it’s just my impression.)

    I agree with you that competition and self-interest have been valued in American culture since early on, though I doubt those values were held as strongly when people were more bound to local communities, in which everyone was known to everyone. From what I’ve seen of film, television, literature, and political speeches of past decades, it does seem to me that civility and decorum have declined. I see less veneration of old people than I am lead to believe existed 150 years ago. The depictions I’ve seen of financial success from previous periods of American history (in literature, primarily) generally show a gradual rise from some entry-level jobs (stock boy, what have you) to low-level management to business ownership, and so on; these tales of success hinge on hard work and discipline. Today, I don’t see stories of people pulling themselves up by their boot-strings; I see stories of musicians who leapt from obscurity to fame, athletes who did the same, college dropouts who start billion-dollar tech companies (emphasis on the audacity, not the hard work), and lottery winners.

    Obviously, these are all my own impressions. Others will have different impressions, and if there’s a complete disconnect between your impressions on this issue and my own, I’m happy to let the matter rest. As I said, it’s not one of great importance to the purposes of this blog. I don't mean to shut down debate. If you feel that further discussion will be productive, of course, by all means, keep commenting. I just don't want to argue too hard over issues too broad and abstract to admit satisfactory conclusion.

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  3. "Today, I don’t see stories of people pulling themselves up by their boot-strings; I see stories of musicians who leapt from obscurity to fame, athletes who did the same, college dropouts who start billion-dollar tech companies (emphasis on the audacity, not the hard work), and lottery winners."

    Well, you couldn't be a star athlete or musician in the old days; modern communication technology is necessary to create stars with enough influence to be really rich. However, get rich quick schemes are incredibly common. What do you suppose all the "rushes" were about if not people running out to the west to strike it rich in the mineral or ore of the moment? And American literature is full of the "nouveau riche" who struck it rich in gold, mineral--and even, I'm sure, the occasional lottery winner, as lotteries go back for hundreds of years. (BTW, how is starting a million dollar company in your basement NOT pulling yourself up by the bootstraps?). Brash, lurid, and flashy have been words that described America since its founding.

    I agree that there was a time when we had a common code of conduct, and I agree that there were some positives to this. But I'm not sure you accurately understand the nature of this country, because most of what you see as new developments are in fact part of our history.

    I find it very troubling when teachers want to teach moral values, because moral values are extremely ideological. Your list is not one I would want a teacher covering with my own son, for example. I also think many would dispute the causes of obesity as being due to moral laxity, credit card debt as an example of moral failing that we should fix by, what--buying less? wanting less? what moral expectation would you put on people?

    I'm not interested in debating these points with you, either. I simply think it beyond dispute that you could not get agreement on what the cause or the cures are for the moral failings that you see, which are not the ones that others see.

    And that's why I adamantly reject any idea that American schools should proselytize a moral value set short of those related to academics--don't cheat, do your best, be proud of your achievements.

    I don't see my two points as related, by the way. That is, I see your view of history as incorrect, and I also reject your belief that we should (or do) teach moral values--beyond the buzzword "tolerance", which is really used to promote an ideological agenda, not a moral one. (but then, of course, many people see no difference--and that's been true for hundreds of years.)

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  4. Hmm. Your software ate the first part of my post. So this post should go first.

    ****

    Your impressions don't align with history, though, and "impressions" aren't the same as history.

    (The religions now dominant in America seem to be more concerned with a personal relationship with god than with a prescribed moral codes—I’m going way out on a limb with that last claim; it’s just my impression.)

    The Great Awakenings, particularly the first, were very much concerned with a personal relationship with god and a personal, not communal, moral code. They were almost entirely evangelical in nature. It's well-established (to the point of being a common question on any standardized US history test) that the First Great Awakening reduced the power of the ministry over the community--and thus led to the rise of merchants, the rich, as the power players in the community.

    Certainly the church has lost power to set moral codes, but that's not because people go to church less--America is, and always has been, the most religious of Western countries. The Great Awakening created the idea of religion as marketplace, giving Americans the option of creating their own religion or switching religions if they didn't like theirs. In the Second Great Awakening, many new denominations sprung up, to respond to the increased demand for new personal codes--and it may be just a coincidence, but the 19th century saw the rise of several "created" religions--Mormon, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and a few others. It also led to the development of the first big social movements in our country--abolition, temperance, public education, women's rights.

    The problem is that giving people the chance to choose their own religion necessarily dilutes and weakens the church's ability to set one moral code. This was seen as a good thing when it allowed people to set up religions that saw abolition and temperance as a dictate of religious beliefs; less so when (for example) it allows some churchs to see homosexuality as a necessary religious freedom, while others see it as a sin. Pick your poison as to which is "the problem", but I would point out that we now have two religions views that are entirely in conflict--and this is true of every social value in debate today.

    So there's nothing new about religion being seen as a personal relationship with god, setting shared, personal moral values.

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  5. Interesting. Fair points. I'm not going to pursue the discussion of whether morals have declined, for all the reasons discussed above. I do want to say, though, that I like your points about the Great Awakenings; I don't agree with all of them, of course, but you offer a nice historical gloss on the complex relationship between religion and societal values.

    Your argument against teaching morals in schools falls more within the scope of this blog, and I am interested in pursuing that one. You're right, of course, that teaching values entails potentially controversial decisions about what we value—but, in an odd reversal of your argument on the other point, I think schools have been making those decisions and teaching values forever; and in that light, the choices about what values to teach may not look as controversial.

    We teach children to share, to be polite, to clean up after themselves, to listen to others, to resolve disputes without recourse to violence, to respect their teacher, to be honest, to be fair and kind to their peers. We have always taught these things in schools—primarily in elementary schools, but in secondary ones as well. Many of those values are necessary to the functioning of the school. We have always taught discipline, patience, responsibility, and perseverance, as well, in as much as those values have always been necessary to succeed in lessons and pass classes; that we taught them more implicitly than explicitly made them no less normative.

    You write that you wouldn't want your son taught the list of values I mentioned in my post (discipline, cooperation, respect, responsibility) but if your son went to kindergarten, I think he was probably taught cooperation and respect; and if he goes to (or already went to) middle- and high-school, I don’t see how he can avoid learning discipline and responsibility.

    I’m surprised that you say you wouldn’t want your son taught those values, however. Or, I’m curious about what specifically you would object to: is it the values themselves or only the explicit teaching of them? Does the idea of your child being respectful and responsible, disciplined in his endeavors, and adept at cooperating with peers bother you? And if so, why? I wouldn’t have expected those values to be controversial.

    I’ll wait on your responses before saying more.

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  6. I don't think we "teach" moral values in elementary school--at least not discipline, respect, and responsibility. We reward them with smiles and praise, but we don't really have lessons in which we demonstrate respect, cooperations, and so on. Do we? (I'm asking that seriously)

    And trust me, millions of kids go through high school without learning discipline and responsibility, and in order to minimize the achievement gap in graduation, we go through all sorts of contortions to not only minimize, but undo the damage done to kids by their lack of discipline and responsibility. Implicitly, kids who get discipline and responsibility will generally do better in school, but this is not taught directly. Interestingly, we used to reward intelligence over discipline and responsibility, and I don't think the change to rewarding hard work *over* intelligence (which was also done in the hopes of minimizing the achievement gap) has been a good one.

    I imagine by now you see that I am pushing back on the notion of explicit instruction, since that's the only thing you can "teach". There are plenty of kids who do well in school because they fake it or because they want something that comes along with good grades--a new car, or one of those rewards that you would find immoral.

    Incidentally, it was this paragraph in your original post that I found problematic:

    We do not value or practice discipline: think of the quick fixes with which we try to improve our schools, the sudden, miraculous routes to wealth depicted in media and advertising—winning the lottery, gaming the stock-market, starting a multi-billion-dollar company in your basement. We discourage cooperation: self-interest and competition are the society’s watchwords. We do not practice respect: media and advertising are brash, rude, vulgar, and lurid; indeed, they frequently aim to offend, to lambast precisely what was once held sacred; one in twenty people will stand up to give an older person a seat on the subway; it is unclear what, if anything, we venerate. We are irresponsible: our government is in massive debt to other nations, as is our citizenry to its credit-card companies; we eat to excess, and obesity is rampant; we use resources with little concern for the limits of their supply.

    I profoundly disagree with your characterizations, and so I would never trust anyone who held those views to explicitly teach my children any values. (I also disagree with many of your "results"--some aren't new, some aren't bad, and some don't strike me as accurate). I'm quite sure that many people would say the same thing about my characterizations.



    I do agree with this, from an earlier comment:

    I think that the pluralism and relativism embraced by American society in the past half-century or so largely did away with the dominant culture that, oppressive as it may have been, provided a common set of values and a common code of conduct.

    In the past, teachers could teach values because they taught that common set and common code--not their values, but the country's values. And that's perfectly okay.

    But today, teachers would be teaching their values. Which is why we stopped doing it.

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  7. Hi Cal,

    There are a lot of interesting points in your comment. Let me just clear up one thing, before I address them: I don’t think rewards are immoral. I don’t think doing good things for rewards is immoral. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “immoral” anywhere in this blog. Once or twice, I’ve used the word “amoral,” which is very different, but what I talked about in this post was a disconnect between the values espoused by educators and taught in schools and those held by the society.

    Ok, setting that aside, I want to talk about this issue of explicit vs. implicit values education. First of all, note that either one can be intentional: you can teach implicitly on purpose, by modeling behaviors associated with a particular value, or by encouraging or drawing attention to such behaviors in the course of everyday lessons, without ever referring to the value itself. Such techniques are often more effective than explicit moral instruction, and they are often undertaken intentionally by teachers.

    Much of pre-school and kindergarten values education is explicit, however. Teachers talk to young children about sharing and listening, kindness and fairness in direct, explicit ways. In older grades, students who are disciplined, mature, responsible, etc. won’t hear much explicit talk about those values, but students whose grades are slipping, who have missed assignments and cut classes, are bound to get talking-tos, and those talking-tos will contain and always have contained explicit language about values. The idea of admonishing children to do their work, attend class, behave well, be polite, etc. without talking about the underlying values behind those behaviors would be absurdly artificial.

    It would be artificial because those values are built into the institution of schooling. They are not random values held by individual teachers; they are values that the whole institution of education is committed to (which doesn’t necessarily mean the whole society is committed to them).

    To some extent, then, it is part of the teacher’s job to perform the ego-separation that allows him to distinguish between his personal beliefs and feelings and what he presents to his students—but that distinction is not complete. The teacher’s individual values inevitably seep into the classroom. This is unavoidable, unless classes are taught by robots, and to argue that it should not happen is to deal in wishes.

    You’re absolutely right that this creates a complex and difficult situation, but it seems to me that banning explicit values instruction actually exacerbates the problem, because it prevents people from talking and thinking explicitly about the values that come through in their teaching. I want teachers to think about how they teach values because doing so will force them to examine those values. We all have corners of our personalities and even of our belief systems that are simply too idiosyncratic to be allowed to infiltrate the classroom; the more self-aware we are about how our beliefs impact the classroom, the better we will be at creating useful and effective ego-separations.

    It’s important to remember, in all this, that children are not entirely passive actors. They are not value-sponges to be filled up by any teacher licentious enough to initiate them into her personal moral philosophy. In fact, children receive implicit and explicit values instruction from many sources, and ultimately, it is up to them to take from all those influences some personal moral/ethical system by which to live their lives. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, if we believe that the teacher’s values are too personal and idiosyncratic to be taught to the student, why should we not think the same about the parents’ values? In the case of a morally depraved parent, we almost certainly do. Thus, a democracy of beliefs in a child’s upbringing may be as close as we can come to a satisfactory approach to moral training in a pluralist, relativist society.

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  8. There’s one other point that needs to be addressed here, which is the teaching of values in the inner-city. In neighborhoods where family structures are weaker and in which home cultures are further from and less integrated with the mainstream, the situation is more extreme, because many students arrive at school with far less grounding in the values that underlie schooling. This is why many inner-city schools in recent years have put a greater emphasis on explicit and concerted values instruction. We have to have respect for a schooling model that gets kids sitting still, listening, and raising hands, and which turns schools into safe learning environments. Relativist arguments against values instruction seem to me a little academic in that context.

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  9. Re the "disconnect between the values espoused by educators and taught in schools and those held by the society"— What do we mean by "society"? If you ask individuals in this society if they value respect, responsibility, honesty, discipline, etc etc I think most people, inner city or otherwise, would say, quite honestly, that they do.
    I think the disconnect is to some degree between the values of individuals and the perceived values of commercial and beaurocratic institutions such as banks, churches, advertisers, phone companies, pharmaceutical companies, and, more recently, (sadly) government. Although these entities claim those values as part of their advertising, which further degrades people's sense of these values as being true and important (when Fruit Loops is labelled a "Healthy Choice" selection by supermarkets, it degrades both the meaning of "healthy" and the general presumption that what is being presented as true is in fact true, which undermines the moral value of truth. And then, of course, there is the disconnect – or at least the gap – between the values we hold as individuals and the ways we act in our daily lives. For example, I value and uphold sharing, but sometimes I act selfishly; or I value and uphold respect, but sometimes I treat people disrespectfully. This is a lapse on my part, but it doesn't mean that I don't really hold those values. And even when society is/was homogenous and values-unified, such as in Puritan communities, people lapsed, and not for lack of values education. - In short, I don't think the disconnect is simply, or even primarily, between the values taught in school and those practised in "society".

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