028 Modern Morality

During the past decade, a swelling chorus of journalistic lament and breastbeating has decried the lack of morality in America. Whether one considers the Charles Keating-style con-artists who subverted the Savings and Loan industry or beholds the teenagers “wilding” and “whirlpooling” in our urban jungles, something is clearly askew in America’s morality. But exactly what’s lacking, exactly why we’re so troubled, is generally more obscured than clarified in TV and newspaper presentations.

To help remedy this vacuum in the public’s understanding, a professor of education at Boston College, William Kilpatrick, has published Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong: Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education (New York: Simon and Schuster, c. 1992), providing a probing and (especially for me, as one who teaches classes in “ethics”) disquieting analysis.

What we face is a crisis of moral illiteracy which overrides the crisis of cultural illiteracy (or simple illiteracy, for that matter). We live in a society where increasing numbers of men and women have little sense of propriety, minimal confidence in moral standards beyond their own personal constructions, no belief in moral absolutes. In part, this results from the growing influence the popular media, especially music and television, exert on impressionable youngsters. Far more deeply than the precepts of parents, teachers or preachers, the media saturates the minds and shapes the hearts of our kids. In the judgment of Kenneth Myers, a TV critic, “‘Television is . . . not simply the dominant medium of popular culture, it is the single most significant shared reality in our entire society. . . . In television we live and move and have our being'” (p. 264).

In addition, today’s moral decay results from secular educators’ misguided efforts to “teach” morality through non-directive strategies such as “values-clarification.” Drawing upon the work of psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, who emphasized non-directive counseling techniques and the importance of “self-actualization,” educators sought to elicit moral standards through free-flowing group discussions and subsequent individual decisions.

(Importantly, Maslow disavowed much that popularizers did with his “self-actualization” insights. He insisted his approach, rightly understood, applies only to adults, for youngsters have not “‘learned how to be patient; nor have they learned enough about evil in themselves and others . . . nor have they generally become knowledgeable and educated enough to open the possibility of becoming wise; nor have they generally acquired enough courage to be unpopular, to be unashamed about being openly virtuous, etc.'” (p. 33).)

But educators dashed ahead, undeterred by Maslow’s considered caution. They insisted on treating children as adults (as moral decision makers) and proceeded on the assumption that freeing the young to clarify their “feelings” on various issues would enable them to live rightly.

Could children only “feel good” about themselves they would then “feel right” about moral issues and thus “do good.” So elementary teachers, one researcher found, “‘are being taught to concern themselves with children’s feelings of self worth and not with the worth of hard work . . .” (p. 41).

To deal with the problem of drug abuse, for example, “drug education” programs such as “Smart,” “Here’s Looking at You,” and “Quest,” were instituted. The “experts” who directed such programs proposed to “facilitate” discussions which would enhance “self-esteem” and automatically equip teens to deal wisely with addictive substances. Unfortunately, follow-up studies reveal that such drug education programs almost unfailingly lead to increased drug experimentation rather than avoidance. It seems that in free-flowing group discussions, youngsters doing drugs or experimenting with alcohol appear more adventurous and grown-up than their peers; they are often more assertive in such discussions, giving their views a more authoritative air; they rarely admit, if they even understand, the potentially disastrous consequences of their behavior. The “facilitating” teacher, refusing to impose norms, ends up allowing the drug education class to encourage experimentation!

The same applies to sex education. (I’ve developed a positively Pavlovian presentiment whenever I hear discussions which deal with this nation’s sexual chaos–“more education” is always proposed as its sole solution!) Yet the more sex education classes we institute in the public schools the more unrestrained and self-destructive becomes our young peoples’ sexual behavior.

Indeed, “a Lou Harris poll, commissioned by Planned Parenthood, revealed that teenagers who had had comprehensive sex education had significantly higher rates of sexual activity than their peers who had not had sex education” (p. 54). Amazingly, in the state of Virginia, “school districts that instituted comprehensive sex education showed a 17 percent increase in teen pregnancies, while schools that were not teaching it had an average of 16 percent decrease during the same period” (p. 54).

This becomes understandable when you consider the materials used in sex education classes. Consider the message of a text used in junior high and high school, Changing Bodies, Changing Lives: “‘If you feel your parents are overprotective . . . or if they don’t want you to be sexual at all until some distant time, you may feel you have to tune out their voice entirely'” (p. 53)

So ignore you parents! Ignore your religious instruction as well: “‘Many Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims believe sex outside marriage is sinful,’ says Changing Bodies. ‘You will have to decide for yourself how important these massages are for you'” (p. 53). The adults kids should trust, it seems, are limited to educators and authors of sex education texts!

What one learns (or should learn) from the failure of such programs is clear: you don’t “teach” morality through non-directive values-clarification bull-sessions, which do little more than elicit random “feelings” concerning proper behavior. In actual class discussions, teachers have discovered students are as likely to “feel” that cheating in class is as OK as sleeping around–an unexpected turn of events which usually displeases teachers more than the sexual permissiveness which they often applaud!

Educators looking for an alternative to the “values clarification” approach have often embrace the “critical thinking” or “moral reasoning” exercises proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg and his cohorts; yet they too fail to actually establish morality. The Socratic method, as adopted by Kolhberg (ignoring the fact that Plato reserved such strategies for folks above the age of 30) poses ethical “dilemmas” which encourage students to weigh the options and reach rational conclusions. His “moral reasoning” assumes the reality of Kant’s “categorical imperative”–an accurate, universal, inner “sense of ought” which gives all persons moral guidance. Posing questions, in the manner of Socrates, enables students to think and make decisions of ethical consequence with confidence.

Having often used this approach, I know how effectively it gets students’ attention and engenders discussion. We all like to debate hypothetical situations. Yet, even for college students, I confess that “After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students will conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess. They will gain the impression, as Cornell professor Richard Baer has pointed out, ‘that almost everything in ethics is either vague or controversial . . . ‘” (p. 85).

Remarkably, Kohlberg ultimately admitted the limitations of his own method. After trying to implement moral reasoning in actual students, Kohlberg confessed that “‘the educator must be a socializer teaching value content and behavior, and not only a Socratic or Rogerian process-facilitator of development . . . I no longer hold these negative views of indoctrinative moral education and I believe that the concepts guiding moral education must be partly “indoctrinative”‘” (p. 92).

Morality, Kohlberg and others have discovered, involves the habitual character of persons as well as their discrete actions. In the past, educators sought to encourage character development by telling the stories of saints and heroes, by insisting on the development of self-discipline, by supplementing the educational efforts of home and church. That John Dewey and his legions of professional educators sought to establish an educational system without reference to home or family goes a long way in explaining why Johnny can’t tell right from wrong, for in fact they afford the sole natural environment for moral development.

What kind of a person will I be? Whom will I emulate? These are the real ethical questions, for they are questions of character. History, literature, Scripture, all rooted in the reality of human experience, provide better sources for character development than the artificial intellectual exercises. Authentic morality begins, as did Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield with this important perspective: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

To give us guidance in attaining that end, we’d do well to embrace the words of Dostoevsky’s Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov, “‘You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and useful for life in after years than some good memory, especially a memory connected with childhood, with home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some fine, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if we have only one good memory left in our hearts, even that may sometime be the means of saving us'” (p. 142).

Given such a “sacred memory,” one may become a moral person, able to live wisely and well. Given such a “sacred memory,” one may then learn to live righteously, nurtured in the traditions of virtuous behavior. Parents especially can contribute to this process. First of all, they must stay married! Restoring the integrity of marriage, staying true to the marriage vow, is basic to the development of morality in children.

Then parents must also impose discipline upon and encourage self-discipline in their children. Just as musicians must submit to rigorous discipline in their early years before becoming self-directed and creative professionals, so children must submit to moral discipline before discovering the liberty of maturity. Kids who do chores, who feel important in maintaining the family’s operation, become adults with self-esteem and self-confidence. Parents with religious convictions who insist their children participate in their spiritual life further enhance their moral development.

Parents must, finally, take control of the TV. The stories children hear must be healthy, uplifting, morally-enhancing. This means the TV must be housed in a remote corner rather than the center of the home. Moms and dads must begin the ancient process of reading the right stuff to their kids (as well as to themselves). “Reading and listening to the right sort of stories creates a primitive emotional attachment to behavior that is good and worthy; it implants a love and desire for virtue in the child’s heart and imagination; it helps to prevent moral blindness” (p. 267).

If the schools would contribute to childrens’ moral development, the development of good character, they must expose students to good art, good music, good literature, complementing the parents’ nurturing endeavors. This means studying the right stories . . . stories rooted in truth of reality, not the “idyllic imagination” espoused by the likes of Joseph Campbell (the mythologist who influenced popular productions such as Star Wars.

Parents and teachers interested in finding the stories which encourage moral development will be pleased with Kilpatrick’s final chapter, a “guide to great books for children and teens,” a fifty-five page annotated bibliography suggesting age-appropriate books ranging from Laura Ingalls Wilder to J.R.R. Tolkien. This chapter alone makes Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong worth perusing!

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A equally fascinating if less balanced book, sharing Kilpatrick’s concern for the escalating relativism in our society, is Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1993), by E. Michael Jones. Central to Jones’ argument is this thesis: “There are only two alternatives in the intellectual life: either one conforms desire to the truth or one conforms truth to desire” (p. 11).

Since our sexual desire is quite powerful, we all too often rationalize our sexual behavior rather than live as we ought. Though sexual sin in itself does great harm, the “most insidious corruption” to which our species falls prey is “the corruption of the mind” which accompanies the process or rationalizing it. “One moves all too easily from sexual sins, which are probably the most common to mankind, to intellectual sins, which are the most pernicious” (p. 12). That process, demonstrably evident in some of this century’s most influential intellectuals, leads Jones to declare that “the verdict is clear: modernity is rationalized lust” (p. 17).

The verdict is based in recent, frequently muckraking biographies. We now know formerly hidden details about the men and women whose theories have so shaped modernity. Consider first the case of Margaret Mead, for decades one of the most trusted academic anthropologists, whose Coming of Age in Samoa has been routinely cited as evidence for “cultural relativism.” What’s right in one culture, she argued, lauding the Samoans’ sexual permissiveness, may be judged wrong in another.

Recent evaluation of Mead’s studies have raised a barrage of flak (items of fact) which threaten to shatter her renown. Amazingly enough, Mead only spent nine months in Samoa, taking a scant six weeks to learn the language of the people she studied! Yet she could write a “definitive” study on such minimal exposure! What she seems to have done, in fact, was to project her own sexual fantasies and standards on a people she scarcely understood.

In fact, rather than being sexually libertine, the Samoans were actually a bit “old-fashioned,” valuing such things as female virginity. Mead claimed adultery caused no stir in Samoan society when in fact it was punishable by death. Determined to confirm her teacher Franz Boas’ doctrine of cultural relativism, she basically imposed on the Samoans what she imagined “primitive” peoples would live out. Herself involved in an adulterous affair, “Mead’s guilty imagination projected adultery onto the puritanical Samoans” (p. 39).

John Maynard Keynes has influenced this century’s economic theory as fully as Mead shaped its anthropology. Recent biographies, disclosing his homosexual activities, enable Jones to argue that Keynes’ sexual perversions impacted his intellectual work. Freed from concern for procreation, homosexuals understandably have little interest in coming generations. Consequently, Keynes’ “deficit economics bespeaks a radically ‘childless’ vision, one in which present pleasures are fostered over building for future generations” (p. 59).

Homosexuals, Jones argues, tend to act as a “subversives” in any society. They have an animus against nature itself which laps over into rebellion against the Lord of nature. Though they think “society” is the problem, the more society accedes to the homosexual agenda the more angry they become, for at the bottom of homosexuals’ anger is the “fear and conviction that the laws against sodomy are based on some deeper immutable configuration of the nature of things” (p. 65).

Alfred Charles Kinsey has also shaped modernity. His allegedly “scientific” studies of human sexuality have undergirded much of the “liberalization” of sexual behavior since WWII. In a pervasive chapter entitled “The Case Against Kinsey,” Jones documents the striking absence of sound data in many of Kinsey’s most widely accepted “findings,” especially those dealing with the degree to which homosexuality pervades our society.

Abortion, like homosexuality, has gained acceptance in modern societies. Jones devotes a chapter, “Liberal Guilt Cookies” to this issue, taking as his launching pad two articles by Anna Quindlen–the one expressing guilt for not spending enough time with her kids, the other advocating a woman’s right to abort a child. Pondering the paradox, Jones advances a rather credible thesis: “Supporters of abortion have often had abortions themselves. Political activism becomes a synthetic pain killer for pangs of conscience. It is to spiritual health what treating cancer with anesthesia would be to medicine” (p. 118).

Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, stamps modernity like a trademark. Jones devotes his longest chapter to the two, arguing that Freud’s probably incestuous affair and Jung’s documented adulterous relationship clearly helped shape their rationalizing psychologies.

Some of Freud’s most significant theories–the Oedipus Complex, totemism, primitive sexual promiscuity–have absolutely no basis in historical or anthropological fact. In fact, “the oldest and ethnologically most primitive people . . . know nothing whatsoever of totemism, and in fact their religion has striking similarities to both Judaism and Christianity in that these people tend to be monotheistic and monogamous, and even refer to God as ‘Our Father'” (p. 181).

Jung, fascinated by the occult and in many ways profoundly gnostic, sought to separate his “spiritual” or “religious” interests from his very physical 40 year liaison with Toni Wolff. “Like Simon Magus, its founder, and like Jung, its best-known exponent in the twentieth century, Gnosticism wants to have the benefits of Christianity without paying the moral price Christianity exacts” (p. 203).

Basically Jones indulges in ad hominem attacks, much like Paul Johnson’ Intellectuals. Obviously an immoral intellectual can in fact do good intellectual work. But all too often, as Jones argues, there may be a hidden agenda in the theories of many modern intellectuals. To the extent they sought to rationalize their own behavior, to justify unrestrained sexual lust, their intellectual integrity may be compromised. Degenerate Moderns enables us to place biographically-rooted question marks around the work of modernity’s architects.