Entry from March 23, 2015

Peter Tait, the Headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School in England — where, by the way, a preparatory school is one that prepares children to take at age 13 the "Common Entrance" exam into that special class of private schools that can call themselves "public"— wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph the other day insisting that "we should be teaching morals and ethics in our schools."

We live in an age of everyone for themselves to lesser or greater degree and we’re not going to change that while the public conscience is unregulated, at least not without a significant moral shift. The current focus on mindfulness on happiness, on well-being and on character is all very well, but there is a more fundamental challenge for our schools. . . .We cannot put everyone in a single moral universe but we can teach them about cause and consequence, about the value of charity and community and about having values that are not able to be measured in material terms alone. Before talking of developing grit and resilience, we should be offering the children in our schools an education in morals and values for that would underpin their lives like nothing else.

My first thought on reading this regrettably vague prescription (which morals? which values apart from charity and community? and, for that matter, which community?) was to ask why we can’t just teach them to care what people think of them? Or, since that was never formerly something that had to be taught, why not at least stop teaching them that it’s somehow shameful to care what people think of them and honorable not to care?

Of course one recognizes that such a recommendation bucks the contemporary but very long-running tide of individualism, which is still very much at the flood in education as elsewhere, notwithstanding some occasional eddies in the direction of "community." But by that word we usually intend some other and larger community than that of the school or family with which kids are naturally most concerned and towards which their feelings are not so easily built on. "Community," in any case does not by itself imply anything very much in the way of morality, whereas the desire to be admired and popular among their local communities scarcely needs to be taught and is already familiar to every child who hasn’t been shamed out of it. The child’s desire to fit in with his or her coevals may be cultivated for at least some good ends, as the school stories of Kipling or Wodehouse or Owen Johnson a century ago showed.

Of course, too, the child’s sense of honor may not be so useful for the inculcation of some "values" as it is for others. Patriotism, honesty, bravery, chivalry, some kinds of high-mindedness and even, for a time, Christian piety were included in the catalogue of schoolboy virtues in those days. Among those who were taught that lying, cheating, stealing or tale-bearing were low, sneaking, ungentlemanly things to do there was not much lying, cheating, stealing or tale-bearing to be found, as it would naturally have resulted in exclusion from the community. In that sense, at least, morality could be taught. I am not so sure, however, that there is any corresponding nisus towards ethics or anything else about the subject, however well taught it may be, that brings with it a comparable native sense of why it matters, or ought to matter, to those being taught.

But there is another difficulty to the teaching of morality in our time, and that is the nearly universal superstition that it is all a matter of opinion. In 1943, C.S. Lewis delivered a series of three lectures at Durham University which were later collected into an indispensable little book called The Abolition of Man and which tackled — once and for all, I suspect, for anyone who has read it — this very question. His target was a school textbook by two teachers named Alex King and Martin Ketley, to whom he gave the pseudonyms of Gaius and Titius. They purported to teach children that questions of morality — and, interestingly, aesthetics — were merely matters of irrational and private feeling which need not detain the attention of the sort of hard-headed, rationalist school-children they meant to produce. After Lewis’s bombardment, at least for anyone who witnessed it, there was nothing left of Gaius and Titius but an oil-slick.

And yet, it is by now pretty clear that King and Ketley have prevailed in the long run, since their ideas about morality are now on the point of institutionalization in America as part of the Common Core. In a too-little noticed blog posting on the website of The New York Times, Justin P. McBrayer, a philosopher at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, points out that the "English Language Arts Standards," subheading "History/Social Studies" for grades six to eight claim to teach children to "distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment" in such a way as to imply "that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But," as Professor McBrayer writes, "if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both" — including, of course, the moral principles that all but the most militantly secularist and rationalist parents (and even most of them, I’ll bet) would want their children to be taught. Conservatives are just beginning to wake up to what’s wrong with the Common Core. This article should jolt them into full wakefulness.

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