Educating for liberty

Educating for liberty

Gary L. Bauer

The President’s belief that education should be a vehicle to transmit values and strengthen our democracy is shared by the great majority of the American people. The Annual Gallup Poll on Education in recent years has indicated majorities in the range of 70 to 80 percent in favor of teaching values in the classroom. This desire by the public is also in accord with the Founding Fathers who believed that the unique republic they were attempting to build depended on a virtuous and ethical population.

Madison said, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” Franklin was equally vehement. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters…. Nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.”

Values in textbooks and classrooms

Unfortunately, an increasing number of studies indicate that over the years values have been emphasized less and less in American textbooks. Some of this decline in emphasis is no doubt due to the difficulty in reaching a consensus about certain values in our pluralistic society. Yet even values on which there is wide agreement, for example, honesty, courage, humility, kindness and genorisity, and patriotism have been eliminated from many texts. In addition, all too often, in the place of these traditional values, textbook material is heavily weighted toward the philosophy of “values clarification” that teaches all values are relative. Reaction to such material has been understandable outrage–not only by parents but among many teachers also.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has expressed grave concern about the failure to pass on clear-cut values in the classroom. In order to counter the trend, AFT has developed supplementary material that teachers may use as a vehicle to transmit value lessons.

A review of the AFT supplementary curriculum material demonstrates the richness of our cultural heritage and shows how it can be used to transmit the values that sustain us. For example, the student is exposed to the story of Penelope’s fidelity to Odysseus during his 20-year absence–a story illustrating the loyalty between a husband and wife. Another story told by E. W. Cassels recounts how a young soldier risks his own life to save his mortally wounded sibling only to have him die when they reach safety. Finally, there is the tale of Ruth and Naomi, in which Ruth, recently widowed, promises to stand with her mother-in-law, Naomi, by pledging “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.” (Although American Civil Liberties Union hearts may flutter with fear at telling a story in the classroom from the Bible, considered as great literature, there is no constitutional prohibition that is violated.)

Diane Ravitch, in American Educator, Fall 1982, succinctly describes why this type of material is needed. “Education without values is clearly impossible, for the very act of teaching expresses belief in the value of learning and human progress…. If public schools did not teach values, did not accept some shared societal values, parents would not entrust them with their children…. The teaching of history, for example, requires value judgments. More parents would expect the teacher to make the judgment that Hitler and Stalin were oppressive tyrants and that Freedom and democracy are valued in our society as both means and ends.”

Teaching the responsibilities of freedom

In addition to the failure to pass on a core set of values in our textbooks and classrooms, some philosophers and political scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about whehter we are following the advice of John Jay “to teach the rising generation to be free.”

Philosopher Sidney Hook in his 1984 Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, contended it was not enough to teach our children math and science skills. He said, “I am suggesting that it is just as important to sharpen the students’ understanding of a free society, its responsibilities and opportunities, the burdens of dangers it faces. Instead of relying primarily on the sciences and humanities to inspire loyalty to the processes of self-government, we should seek to develop that loyalty directly through honest inquiry into the functioning of a democratic community, by learning its history, celebrating its heroes, and noting its achievements. Integral to the inquiry would be the intensive study of the theory and practice of contemporary totalitarian societies, especially the fate of human rights in those areas where Communism has triumphed.”

Hook added, “I am not making the utopian claim that anything we do in the schools today will of itself redeem or rebuild our society. Continued institutional changes must be made to strengthen the stake of all groups in freedom. But of this I am convinced: In our pluralistic, multi-ethnic, uncoordinated society, no institutional changes of themselves will develop that bond of community we need to sustain our nation in times of crisis without a prolonged schooling in the history of free society, its martyrology, and its national tradition. In the decades of mass immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries that bond was largely forged by the American public school. What I propose is that our schools, reinforced by our colleges and universities, do the same job today in a more intelligent, critical and sophisticated way.”

Hook’s advice should be heeded. In a world divided between free societies and totalitarianism, schools have an obligation to teach our children the basis of our liberty and the sacrifices that were made and no doubt will have to be made again to preserve it. In remarks made at the University of Texas at Austin last year, Vice President George Bush summed up our responsibility in education in clear, eloquent language. He said:

“Education, it has been said, represents the soul of society as it passes from one generation to the next. That thought should mae us sober. All that we are–all great devotions, all the crucial writings and the whole mass of technical knowledge that have produced a civilization in which millions lived in midst of freedom and abundance–all these stand perched at the edge of an abyss each time one generation attempts to educate the next.

If we stumble once, we are lost. If we fail to instruct our children in reason, justice, religion, liberty, they will not know these virtues but will live instead in the twilight of a world in which the great truths have been forgotten. Knowledge represents a trust handed down to us by the generations. To pass that trust on intact–to educate–represents no mere task, but a high duty.”

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group