We hear a lot today, she says, about how Johnny can’t read, how he can’t write, and the trouble he is having finding France on a map. It is also true that Johnny is having difficulty distinguishing right from wrong. Along with illiteracy and innumeracy, we must add deep moral confusion to the list of educational problems.
Increasingly, today’s young people know little or nothing about the Western moral tradition. This was recently demonstrated by Tonight Show host Jay Leno. Leno frequently does “man-on-the street” interviews, and one night he collared some young people to ask them questions about the Bible. “Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?” he asked two college-age women. One replied, “Freedom of speech?” Mr. Leno said to the other, “Complete this sentence: Let he who is without sin. . . .” Her response was, “have a good time?” Mr. Leno then turned to a young man and asked, “Who, according to the Bible, was eaten by a whale?” The confident answer was, “Pinocchio.”
As with many humorous anecdotes, the underlying reality is not funny at all. These young people are morally confused. They are the students I and other teachers of ethics see every day. Like most professors, I am acutely aware of the “hole in the moral ozone.”
One of the best things our schools can do for America is to set about repairing it–by confronting the moral nihilism that is now the norm for so many students. I believe that schools at all levels can do a lot to improve the moral climate of our society. They can help restore civility and community if they commit themselves and if they have the courage to act. When you have as many conversations with young people as I do, you come away both exhilarated and depressed. Still, there is a great deal of simple good-heartedness, instinctive fair-mindedness, and spontaneous generosity of spirit in them.
Most of the students I meet are basically decent individuals. They form wonderful friendships and seem to be considerate of and grateful to their parents–more so than the baby boomers were. In many ways they are more likable than the baby boomers–they are less fascinated with themselves and more able to laugh at their faults. An astonishing number are doing volunteer work. They donate blood to the Red Cross in record numbers and deliver food to housebound elderly people. They spend summer vacations working with deaf children or doing volunteer work in Mexico. This is a generation of kids that, despite relatively little moral guidance or religious training, is putting compassion into practice. Conceptually and culturally, however, today’s young people live in a moral haze. Ask one of them if there are such things as “right” and “wrong,” and suddenly you are confronted with a confused, tongue-tied, nervous, and insecure individual.
The same person who works weekends for Meals on Wheels, who volunteers for a suicide prevention hotline or a domestic violence shelter might tell you,
…“Well, there really is no such thing as right or wrong. It’s kind of like whatever works best for the individual. Each person has to work it out for himself.”
The trouble is that this kind of answer, which is so common as to be typical, is no better than the moral philosophy of a sociopath. I often meet students incapable of making even one single confident moral judgment. And it’s getting worse. The things students now say are more and more unhinged. …They told me that if they were faced with the choice between saving their pet or a human being, they would choose the former. We have been thrown back into a moral Stone Age; many young people are totally unaffected by thousands of years of moral experience and moral progress. The notion of objective moral truths is in disrepute. And this mistrust of objectivity has begun to spill over into other areas of knowledge. Today, the concept of objective truth in science and history is also being impugned. An undergraduate at Williams College recently reported that her classmates, who had been taught that “all knowledge is a social construct,” were doubtful that the Holocaust ever occurred. One of her classmates said, “Although the Holocaust may not have happened, it’s a perfectly reasonable conceptual hallucination.” … When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he did not say, “At least that is my opinion.” He declared it as an objective truth. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton amended the Declaration of Independence by changing the phrase “all men” to “all men and women,” she was not merely giving an opinion; she was insisting that females are endowed with the same rights and entitlements as males. The assertions of both Jefferson and Stanton were made in the same spirit–as self-evident truths and not as personal judgments. Today’s young people enjoy the fruits of the battles fought by these leaders, but they themselves are not being given the intellectual and moral training to argue for and to justify truth. In fact, the kind of education they are getting is systematically undermining their common sense about what is true and right.
Because Ideas Have Consequences Let me be concrete and specific: Men and women died courageously fighting the Nazis. They included American soldiers, Allied soldiers, and resistance fighters. Because brave people took risks to do what was right and necessary, Hitler was eventually defeated. Today, with the assault on objective truth, many college students find themselves unable to say why the United States was on the right side in that war. …T he problem is not that young people are ignorant, distrustful, cruel, or treacherous. And it is not that they are moral skeptics. They just talk that way. To put it bluntly, they are conceptually clueless. The problem I am speaking about is cognitive. Our students are suffering from “cognitive moral confusion.” What is to be done? How can we improve their knowledge and understanding of moral history? How can we restore their confidence in the great moral ideals?
…. Here, I am going to propose a few ideas on how we might carry out this relearning. I am going to propose something that could be called “moral conservationism.” It is based on this premise: We are born into a moral environment just as we are born into a natural environment. Just as there are basic environmental necessities, like clean air, safe food, fresh water, there are basic moral necessities. What is a society without civility, honesty, consideration, self-discipline? Without a population educated to be civil, considerate, and respectful of one another, what will we end up with? Not much. For as long as philosophers and theologians have written about ethics, they have stressed the moral basics. We live in a moral environment. We must respect and protect it. We must acquaint our children with it. We must make them aware it is precious and fragile. I have suggestions for specific reforms. They are far from revolutionary, and indeed some are pretty obvious. They are “common sense,” but unfortunately, we live in an age when common sense is becoming increasingly hard to come by….
I say we’re not,
and instead that we’re living rather in a digital age that allows more communication among us than ever before. And furthermore, doesn’t frequent contact with others become the single, and greatest source of moral behavior? Perhaps not yet an Age of Gold, but not one of Stone either.
Ms. Sommers diagnosis our situation, and then says what we might do to correct it. Neither her diagnosis, —that young people today are different, in particular by not being able to distinguish between right and wrong, —nor her prescription, having the young read the Great Books, and their mentors ceasing to bad-mouth the country, and neither the diagnosis nor the prescription are convincing.
Johnny, she says, can’t distinguish right from wrong. Why? Because he has grown up pretty much ignorant of the Western moral tradition as contained in the Great Books. Do you believe that?
Ms. Sommers notes that while today’s young people volunteer for all kinds of charitable and humanitarian service they will say, if asked, that there is no such thing as right and wrong. Is that true?
Her evidence for this is anecdotal, as it would have to be given that we have absolutely no general agreement as to what constitutes possessing knowledge of right and wrong. I’m 83 years old, and I know that I can’t always distinguish between the two.
And when she says that it was not always thus she cites Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration , that “all men have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What did she mean by that? that Jefferson’s words were proof that the people of that time knew the difference between right and wrong? and then her even more bizarre conclusion that Jefferson’s words were evidence of objective truth. There she loses me.
Of course we know now how very far removed from the real men of the world were Jefferson’s “all men.” In fact we might even conclude that things are better today because today we see “all men” more clearly than did the Founding Fathers. They were too much into “Selfies,” even perhaps seeing themselves much as the historians would unrealistically describe them in the years to come.
She faults today’s young people for being ignorant of WWII, our designated just war, of not being aware of the rightness of the allied cause in the war. But does it follow from this that these same young people would be unable to sacrifice themselves for a “just cause” in the future. I don’t think so.
In fact, not at all. Of how many earlier just wars, of which there were maybe only a few, were the young men and women doing the fighting ignorant of the rationale for the war? In any case their ignorance of the rationale, if such it was, didn’t prevent them from well serving their country.
Furthermore just wars are the exceptions and the skepticism of our college students, even regarding WWII, is probably a healthy phenomenon. Better to be skeptical, hesitant about going to war, any war, even if it means doubting the validity of perhaps the only just war of the century.
Ms. Sommers bases her argument on an analogy. Just as the Hippies turned away from modern hygiene and became multi-infectious-disease prone, she says, so the young people in the moral sphere are turning away from a kind of moral hygiene, from accepting the achievements of the great moralists of the past, and becoming thereby thereby advocates and proponents of an immoral or amoral society.
And just as the Hippies had to go through a relearning of good habits of hygiene if they would stay healthy, so the young people in the moral sphere need now to go through a relearning of the accumulated moral wisdom that is our heritage from the past.
Ms. Sommers makes so many unsupported, gratuitous statements that it’s difficult to counter each and every one of them. For example, she says without evidence that we are born into a moral environment, just as we are born into a natural environment. And she goes on to say that this moral environment is one where civility, honesty, consideration, self-discipline etc. reign. Really?
A gratuitous statement if there ever was one. How many kids are born into such an environment? And more to the point it’s probably true that such a moral environment has never existed beyond a particular family, group, or tribe, and in each instance the family group or tribe has probably been a great exception to the vast numbers of families, groups, tribes, and nations who show few if any of these admirable qualities.
A moral environment is rare, and in those cases where it does exist it’s never there to start with, but has to be created from the ground up.
If young people no longer know the difference between right and wrong they’re probably like most young people everywhere, now and in the past. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is something you may learn, some will learn it and some won’t, but it probably won’t result from our curriculum, our teaching and reading of the great books.
If Ms. Sommers thinks that knowledge of right and wrong was more prevalent in the time of the Founding Fathers it’s because the records we have come primarily from those few Fathers, not from the mass of humanity, including women, slaves, and native Americans to mention the most oppressed, whose voices were not heard much beyond where they lived and worked because the masses were too busy just doing what had to be done to survive.
The diagnosis is wrong. What about the prescription? Is that too just as wrong? Well there’s nothing terribly wrong with the two major corrections she proposes in her prescription. It’s just that they’re the sorts of things you hear from a preacher in a church, mosque, or temple, and will no more change the behavior of the young than the words of a preacher change the behavior of the audience.
Most of all she would rely on our teaching, teaching the young the difference between right and wrong, something they’ve failed to learn in the moral stone age.
But teaching is what’s wrong with our whole system of education. We build our schools about teaching, whereas they should have been built about learning.
And she would start with teaching the Great Books. For example Ms. Sommers says that St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe, which teachers the Great Books provides thereby a “classical moral education” for its students, the implication being that here, where the great books form the basis of the curriculum, students will learn the difference between right and wrong. Really?
During some four years of teaching at the college I never saw that happening, and furthermore a moral education was never even one of the stated goals of the college. The people there knew better than that.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of a program that encourages the reading of the great books, but not as a vehicle for becoming a more moral person. The great books themselves tell you that virtue cannot be taught. Don’t even try. In fact the great books by being great will tell you pretty much anything and everything, the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral.
“The longest distance in the world is between an official state curriculum policy paper and what goes on in a child’s mind.” Peter Schrag in the American Prospect, March/April 1998
We must make students aware that there is a standard of ethical ideals that all civilizations worthy of the name have discovered. We must encourage them to read the Bible, Aristotle’s Ethics, Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Koran, and the Analects of Confucius. When they read almost any great work, they will encounter these basic moral values: integrity, respect for human life, self-control, honesty, courage, and self-sacrifice. All the world’s major religions proffer some version of the Golden Rule, if only in its negative form: Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. We must teach the literary classics. We must bring the great books and the great ideas back into the core of the curriculum. We must transmit the best of our political and cultural heritage. Franz Kafka once said that a great work of literature melts the “frozen sea within us.” There are also any number of works of art and works of philosophy that have the same effect. American children have a right to their moral heritage. They should know the Bible. They should be familiar with the moral truths in the tragedies of Shakespeare, in the political ideas of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln. They should be exposed to the exquisite moral sensibility in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Mark Twain, to mention some of my favorites. These great works are their birthright. This is not to say that a good literary, artistic, and philosophical education suffices to create ethical human beings; nor is it to suggest that teaching the classics is all we need to do to repair the moral ozone. …
And so I come to another basic reform: Teachers, professors, and other social critics should be encouraged to moderate their attacks on our culture and its institutions. They should be encouraged to treat great literary works as literature and not as reactionary political tracts. In many classrooms today, students only learn to “uncover” the allegedly racist, sexist, and elitist elements in the great books. Meanwhile, pundits, social critics, radical feminists, and other intellectuals on the cultural left never seem to tire of running down our society and its institutions and traditions. We are a society overrun by determined advocacy groups that overstate the weaknesses of our society and show very little appreciation for its merits and strengths. I would urge those professors and teachers who use their classrooms to disparage America to consider the possibility that they are doing more harm than good. Their goal may be to create sensitive, critical citizens, but what they are actually doing is producing confusion and cynicism. …
We need to bring back the great books and the great ideas. We need to transmit the best of our political and cultural heritage. We need to refrain from cynical attacks against our traditions and institutions. We need to expose the folly of all the schemes for starting from zero. We need to teach our young people to understand, respect, and protect the institutions that protect us and preserve our kindly, free, and democratic society.
This we can do. And when we engage in the Great Relearning that is so badly needed today, we will find that the lives of our morally enlightened children will be saner, safer, more dignified, and more humane.
I think I’ve already mentioned that the Ayatollah Ali Kamenei’s favorite great book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. That’s a great book. And it’s one of my favorites too. But we take from this book, as from the Bible and from Shakespeare, what we want to satisfy our own needs and interests, and what we take probably has no direct relationship to our understanding, such as it be, of right and wrong.
So while she’s not wrong about the greatness of the great books about what one will take away from reading them she doesn’t (and can’t, no one can) have a clue. One learns from these works, but absolutely not a standard of ethical ideals. Quick, what would Shakespeare’s standard be? not to mention the Old Testament, let alone the Koran!
Ms. Sommers confuses throughout her article moral illiteracy, what she understands as ignorance of right and wrong, with right behavior. One may not know the classical tradition at all, have learned nothing from one’s teachers whoever they be, and still be a good man. And, as we have learned over and over again, one may also know the classical tradition, as did many of the officers about Hitler, and not be a good man.
Her other prescription is that we, and in particular teachers and professors in their contacts with young people, that they stop bad-mouthing our country. Because we need most of all a population of young people who are proud of their country and therefore we should not stress in front of the young the mistakes that the country has made. In other words, we should watch what we say, and avoid things that put the country in a bad light. But doesn’t this fly in the face of our most cherished freedom of speech?
In regard to her words, the paragraph beginning, “We need to bring back the great books and the great ideas. …’ (see just above in the left hand column) she has this to say: “We need to teach our young people to understand, respect, and protect the institutions that protect us and preserve our kindly, free, and democratic society.”
How would she ever accomplish this? Not that the goal is not admirable, to be greatly desired. Probably not by teaching the great books, and certainly not by hiding from the young the real mistakes that our country has made in the past. The children probably have the most to learn from these mistakes.
The young need most of all to hear us speaking the truth. That alone should be enough to change things for the better, and it ought to happen more often.