Written by Ben C. Dunson |
Tuesday, February 6, 2024
At the founding, and for most of America’s history, the moral formation at America’s schools and universities included instruction in religion. George Washington warned, for example, in his Farewell Address that we must not “indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” Massachusetts’ Constitution speaks similarly: “The happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depends upon piety, religion, and morality.” John Adams’ comments on the necessity of religion for true virtue show that it was Christianity, not some nebulous sense of the divine, that must be promoted. Christians recognize, or should do so, that education independent of moral formation is not only impossible, it is undesirable.
Every day or so I encounter a conservative (sometimes even an exasperated moderate on the left) bemoaning the capture of America’s educational system by woke zealots; 2+2=5 and related nonsense. I bemoan the capture of this system too. Although my children are home-schooled I know how bad it is going to be when today’s publicly-schooled children grow up and land in positions of power and influence in government, business, and culture. We’ve got plenty of signs already for what that will mean. However, what I can’t do is join in the refrain of well-meaning conservatives: “Just teach the facts. Education, not indoctrination. Etc.” Such slogans are not only impossible; they are undesirable, even if attainable. They arise out of the same mentality that has left conservatives unable to respond adequately to transgenderism and other social maladies. Instead of addressing the root problem, they address a symptom. We get opposition to men in women’s sports and locker rooms, when the real problem is that transgenderism is a perverse rebellion against the created order that must be opposed in its totality. Likewise, timid conservatives think that the only way to remove harmful ideologies from the nation’s schools is to require schools to teach nothing but supposedly neutral facts, the basics of math, grammar, writing, and so on.
But education cannot avoid moral formation. That is the point of education. Schools exist (they should anyway) to form hearts and minds, to provide students with facts and the moral framework in which to understand those facts. “Education, not indoctrination,” if pressed to its logical conclusion, would produce mindless repositories of random facts, perhaps capable of performing tasks in the marketplace and making money, but little more.
No subject can be adequately taught in a moral vacuum. Consider history. Is the study of history simply the memorization of names, places, and dates? I suppose one could attempt to approach it in that way. In addition to being intensely boring, however, such a study would be utterly pointless. The reason we study history is to learn from the past, not in a superficial “history repeats itself” way in which we think we can predict the future based on historical parallels, but in the sense that we see in our study that people, despite many technological advances, tend to act in certain ways. We learn that certain kinds of situations tend to produce certain kinds of outcomes; “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” Benjamin Franklin warned; “As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” And so on (all quotations in this column are from Thomas West, The Political Theory of the American Founding, chapters 8-9). What about literature? Is literature of value only as a diversion and time-waster? Or is it not beneficial because it enables us to peer into the human soul in its manifold diversity? Can math facts, or physics facts, or grammar facts, be learned without considering the use to which those facts should be put?
With a little reflection I think most people can see that an amoral approach is not only impossible, it is undesirable. While I share the dismay of my fellow citizens as they watch leftist ideologies destroy America’s schools, what is needed is moral formation in what is good, true, and beautiful, rather than an attempt to reject moral formation completely. American conservatives would do well to return to the founders of our nation to see what they thought about education. Doing so would reveal how thoroughly out of step the “neutral” approach to education is with the founding spirit.