Reopening the books on ethics: the role of education in a free society

Reopening the books on ethics: the role of education in a free society

John A. Howard

Edmund Burke, in his “Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol,” addressed the central paradox of liberty, the inherent and never wholly reconcilable conflict between private judgment, which makes freedom a blessed estate, and the individual’s responsibility to the community, which makes freedom a prickly burden. “The extreme of liberty,” Burke asserted, “(which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere…. Liberty must be limited to be possessed.”

The relentless tension between the human impulse to pursue one’s own course and the necessity to modify one’s conduct according to the needs of the group has challenged generations of philosophers and precipitated the collapse of powerful governments. This polarity must be dealt with in every organized endeavor–in commerce, industry, medicine, jurisprudence, and in the family. There is no immunity from it even for artistic creation, which by common consent demands for its fulfillment the utmost in independent judgment. Listen to the editors of the highly regarded Saturday Review of Literature in their denunciation of an award which the United States Library of Congress bestowed upon Ezera Pound for his Pisan Cantos:

While one must divorce politics from art, it is quite another matter to use the word “politics” as a substitute for values. We do not believe, in short, that art has nothing to do with values. We do not believe that what a poet says is necessarily of lesser importance than the way he says it. We do not believe that a poet can shatter ethics and values and still be a good poet. We do not believe that poetry can convert words into maggots that eat at human dignity and still be good poetry.

This editorial, I believe, speaks directly to the issue in question. The problem is certainly not how to prevent an Ezra Pound or anyone else from writing whatever seems important to him. The question, rather, is what shall the community prize and praise, what shall be the values and ideals and standards which shape the life of the society, and how shall worthy ideals and values be perpetuated. The editors of the Saturday Review were insisting that those who hold major responsibilities in the realm of public beliefs are inexcusably delinquent if they contribute to the destruction of standards of civilized conduct. The editors understood the importance of Burke’s assertion that liberty must be limited to be possessed.

Parts dominated the whole

It has been 33 years since the Saturday Review’s criticism of the award committee created a heated controversy. During this last third of a century, there have been very few voices of intellectual or cultural prominence asserting and defending the interests of the entire society. In fact, this has been an era in which the parts have been granted virtually unquestioned dominance over the whole. The large debates have been about which of the competing interest groups shall prevail, not whether the common welfare would be served or injured by the outcome of an issue.

During the campus turmoil of the 1960s the statements, silences, actions, and inactions of the leaders of American colleges and universities illustrated and underscored this change away from a concern for the whole society to smaller parochial concerns. The open and sometimes violent assault by the student radicals upon the values and traditions and operating principles of the free society was of a much larger magnitude than the mere awarding of the literary prize to Mr. Pound. Almost no university president spoke out forcefully about the interests of the society which were then under attack. The rational public debate which did take place about the meaning and resolution of the campus convulsions seldom extended beyond a discussion of the nature and obligations of academic freedom. Academic freedom, to be sure, is a matter of basic importance, but one must ask: Is academic freedom more important than other principles of community life, more important than order, rationality and lawfulness?

Academic autonomy proclaimed

When the campus turmoil had run its course, an altogether new set of assumptions had come to prevail in much of American higher education. One of those new principles seems to be that if academic freedom is not superior to all other considerations, at least no other public claims can be permitted to encroach upon the definition and application of academic freedom. Academic autonomy had been proclaimed. Although the ideas which crystallized in this new stance had been gaining support through many decades, the open assertion of the university’s independence from the prevailing norms of the society marked a fundamental change from the concepts which had previously guided the course of American education.

The contrast between the old educational philosophy and the new one was brought into sharp focus by a report issued in 1979 by the Hastings Center in New York. In an analysis entitled “The Teaching of Ethics in the Undergraduate Curriculum 1876-1976,” the author, douglas Sloan, wrote:

Throughout most of the nineteenth century the most important course in the college curriculum was moral philosophy, taught usually by the college president and required of all senior students….

The full significance and centrality of moral philosophy in the nineteenth-century college curriculum can only be understood in the light of the assumption held by American leaders that no nation could survive, let alone prosper, without some common moral and social values….

The entire college experience was meant above all to be an experience in character development and the moral life.

Moral development was also the dominant concern in the schools as well as the colleges of that era. The McGuffey Readers, filled with little tales of moral elevation, were the common classroom sustenance of generations of Americans.

Education’s role rejected

Let us consider briefly some of the factors which contributed to the rejection of education’s role as the guardian and tutor of public morals and ethics. One was the growing acceptance among faculty members of various new theories and philosophies, moral relativism, and subjectivity. More and more scholars had come to believe that the eternal verities had been proven false, or at least suspect, or were even barricades on the path to the total fulfillment of human nature. The rapidity with which ancient scientific certitudes yielded to new discoveries encouraged an analogy that ancient moral certitudes were equally vulnerable.

You will recognize this concept of a precise and demanding role for education was not an aberration that sprang up only in America, perhaps from puritanical New Englanders or from untutored frontiersmen. Rather, it was the American version of a long heritage of political and social theory deeply rooted in classical philosophy. During the 19th century, the United States was not alone in the prominence it gave to moral and ethical education. Francois Guizot, who successfully led the debate in the French Parliament to establish a national system of secondary education and then was named Minister of Education to implement that legislation, was above all a moralist. Earlier he had founded the first French pedagogical journal, Les Annales de L’Education, stressing in one editorial after another the necessity to imbue children with the principles of noble conduct.

Matthew Arnold, the english poet, but also an Oxford professor and for 35 years in inspector of British elementary schools, was chosen to head a delegation sent to France to try to discover why the French system of education seemed significantly more effective than the British one. Throughout that investigation, everywhere he went, Arnold encountered praise for Guizot and the priorities he had established. Matthew Arnold’s own definition of education was “learning and propagating the best that has been thought and said in this world.”

Codes achieve group objectives

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let us go to the next step and remind ourselves of the critical relationship between moral and ethical training and the well-being of the free society. For a nation as for every other group, be it family, athletic team, committee, or business enterprise, there must be some means by which the actions of the participants can be coordinated to achieve the objectives of the group. In the totalitarian society, decisions are made by the central authority as to what the citizens will do and will not do, and those decisions are enforced by terrorism, brainwashing, false imprisonment, and all the other techniques of tyranny. In the free society, the characteristic means of cooperation is the voluntary observance of informal codes of conduct. They include courtesy, honor, sportsmanship, lawfulness, integrity, professional ethics, marital fidelity, respect for private property, providing a good day’s work for a good day’s pay, and countless other informal norms.

A second factor was a dramatic change in the qualifications of the people chosen as the leaders of American academic institutions. In the United States, prior to World War II, the college or university president characteristically took a major part in shaping the curriculum and guiding the educational program. Presidents Woodrow Wilson of Princeton, Robert Maynard Hutchins of Chicago, and James Bryan Conant of Harvard were not simply dynamic leaders of their universities, they were also commanding voices in the public discussion of educational philosophy. One is hard put to identify even one counterpart of those men today. In the last few decades the academic leaders seem to have been chosen for their skills in mediating conflicts, raising money, and managin complex organizations. The purposes of education languish in the councils of academic power; the agendas are almost totally devoted to the mechanics of financing and delivering education.

One other factor in the fundamental change in the concept of the relationship between education and society deserves comment. During the last forty years, the volume and cost of research conducted on the campuses has increased phenomenally. The salaries and the benefits now offered by universities in the competition to lure eminent research scholars to their premises have put the recruitment of renowned researchers almost on a par with that of professional football stars. In 1962, Harvard’s President Pusey was moved to issue a formal report about the consequences of the massive research funds that had been flowing to the campuses from the government. Among other concerns, he noted that programs in science had grown rapidly in contrast to programs in all other fields of study and that the number of faculty appointments primarily devoted to research had grown out of all proportion to appointments for classroom teaching, which earlier had been the raison d’etre of the university, so that decisions about many aspects of the university were affected by the large voting block of research-minded professors.

As the research function was catapulted into prominence, the principles which govern research activity tended to prevail in those instances where they were in conflict with the previous assumptions of the academic community. By its nature, research must be uninhibited. It makes no sense to encourage a scholar to study a topic and tell him there are three aspects of it that are forbidden. All possibilities must be open to him if he is to perform his work thoroughly. By logical extension, it is judged inappropriate to impose limitations on the political, social, and even moral sympathies and affiliations of faculty members. From the research point of view, enthusiasts of violent revolution, partisans of sexual liberation, and advocates of any bizarre religious cult should be as eligible for a professorship as anyone else, provided they have the proper scholarly credentials. This research pressure against normative judgments reenforced the growing acceptance of moral relativism by the teaching faculty at a time when the academic leadership had already become little inclined to concern itself with such matters as the content and the character of the educational program and the impact that the educational program has upon the values, beliefs, and priorities of the students.

Traditional standards dismantled

By the middle of the 1960s the faculty support for any normative stance on the part of the university had dwindled to the point that when the student militants made their demands, in many places the whole structure of policies and regulations through which traditional standards of conduct had been prescribed by the university was rapidly dismantled. On some campuses, the transformation not only involved the abdication of authority for all out-of-class aspects of the student’s experience, but went so far as the sharing of authority with students for curricular planning, the performance rating of faculty members, the selection of the university president, and even membership on the Board of Trustees.

The consequences of this upheaval in the university’s view of its relationship to the students can only be fully comprehended in the light of a clear understanding of the justification for the educational philosophy which had been abandoned. Douglas Sloan noted in the passage already cited that the American leaders of the 19th century believed that no nation could survive, let alone prosper, without common moral and social values. These earlier leaders perceived that the schooling in every country serves as the primary instrument by which the society imbues each new generation with a commitment to the ideals, the mores, and the institution which characterize that particular kind of society and make it viable. It is not a question of simply imparting information about the partria, but rather of acculturating and indoctrinating the young as partisans of their homeland, carefully preparing them to accept and fulfill their responsibilities and obligations as citizens.

The general observance of such standards of behavior contributes to an amicable and productive community. When people behave in a civilized fashion, it is easy to get along together. A large-scale rejection of these informal standards eats away at the fabric of good will and mutual trust which more than anything else makes life in the free society a friendly and agreeable circumstance, in contrast to the state of permanent suspicion and fear which characterize the tyranny. If citizens increasingly norms, all the systems and institutions of the society begin to operate less effectively; and when irresponsible conduct becomes widespread, the government is called on to pass more and more laws to regulate citizen behavior, so that the free society is converted into a system of government coercion. The breakdown of the informal codes of conduct is the precursor of the conversion of the free society to a controlled society.

Civilized behavior is learned behavior

Despite the flights of enthusiasm of philosophers and theorists asserting the contrary, history makes it clear that the human being, left to his own devices, is not likely to behave in a manner that promotes the well-being of the community. The definition of a savage is, after all, a person who does his own thing. Civilized behavior is learned behavior. We do ourselves a great disservice if we persist in believing the contrary. The apologists for the current non-normative stance of the universities insist that if students are exposed to various and contradictory views of mankind, and of the good society and the good life, their intelligence will lead them to wise or at least tolerable decisions about how they lead their own lives.

The response to that attitude of detached indifference about values was set forth by Gordon Chalmers in one of the very important works of educational philosophy to appear in the United States since 1950. Dr. Chalmers’ book was entitled, significantly, The Republic and the Person. He wrote:

The late William Allan Neilson, speaking at the 1940 Commencement of Kenyon College, told the graduates that his generation of university professors and presidents had been guilty of wrapping the young in romantic cotton wool. . . . Speaking of the aim and temper of college education, President Neilson quoted from The City of Man . . . the opinion of numerous intellectual leaders that the liberalism they had taught and promoted in the Twenties and Thirties was in important particulars established not on ethical fact, but on sentiment. It was, said the author of that volume, a “disintegrated liberalism.” They stated that the illusions of the Thirties had produced a timidity and lack of conviction in many Americans concerning the true character of the Nazis and their threat to democracy. One may add that they also produced a romanticized notion of the true nature of Communism. This sentimentalism was directly traceable to the ethical ignorance of persons thought to be learned. Many of these later admitted that the university world had persuaded the young that evil itself, extensive and malignant, does not exist.

“The ethical ignorance of persons thought to be learned” is a hazard of no small consequences when it is prevalent in the academic community. Let us return again to the dominant nonnormative orthodoxy of the universities. The process of education presupposes that knowledge has something to teach ignorance, experience something to teach inexperience, and informed judgment something to teach raw judgment. In the sciences, these suppositions still hold firm. The student is not subjected to a great range of confliciting views about gravity, genetics, and thermodynamics. He is provided with what is judged by the professor to be the most accurate and advanced understanding of the subject available. In science, a body of accumulated knowledge still has authority. However, in the more universally demanding realm of ethics and human values, ignorance, inexperience, and raw judgment have been proclaimed the equivalent of trained expertise. Each student is encouraged to arrive at his own conclusion. This is a rejection of the nature and meaning of education, and one which the free society may not be able to withstand.

Education for responsible citizenship

It is an easy thing to be critical of imperfect human beings and imperfect institutions. The more useful and more difficult role of the analyst is to offer some guidelines for better accomplishing the desired objectives. What we have asserted is a principle of the free society–the necessity for the educational system to prepare the young for responsible citizenship. The determination of what shall be the subject matter that attends to that principle is a complex and hazardous undertaking. There can be no single blueprint that serves all free societies equally well or even all communities in one society because, as Edmund Burke observed in the letter cited earlier, “social and civil freedom, like all other things in common life, are variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in very different degrees, and shaped into an infinite diversity of forms, according to the temper and circumstances of every community.”

The point of departure in designing a citizenship-training program needs to be the identification of principles of the free society that are vital to the community well-being. Let us touch on three illustrations that might quality for that designation:

1. The principle of the rule of law. Each citizen needs to understand that chaos results when each person decides for himself which laws he will obey and which he will disregard. Each citizen must be brought to a recognition that the lawlessness of one individual harms all individuals. The ignorance of, or perhaps indifference to, this principle is approaching universality in the United States. There seems to be no recognition that when an individual takes up an illegal habit, for example the use of illegal drugs, the level of his concern for abiding by all other laws is automatically decreased.

2. The principle of orderly change. An enduring society must have provision for attending to new circumstances and new requirements. The free society does so through its legislative bodies at all levels of government. It is therefore important that the voters select as legislators individuals of integrity, objectivity, and breadth of understanding who can accurately anticipate the probable consequences of the laws they enact, choosing a careful course that balances the proper interests of the citizens variously affected by the legislation. The degree to which this principle has faded from public consciousness in any free society can be measured by the character of the incumbent legislators. I must confess that integrity, objectivity, and broad knowledge do not come immediately to mind when one thinks of the members of the United States Congress. One hopes that other free nations are faring better in this regard.

3. The principles of justice. It is essential for the citizens to understand that the processes by which the free society mediates and adjudicates conflicts are dependent for their effectiveness on facts, objectivity, and rationality. When one party to an issue distorts the truth or asserts lies, or tries to stir up fear or hatred against the other party, not only is the just resolution of the conflict jeopardized, but a process of the utmost importance to the free society is compromised. We are now seeing the institutionalization of the antithesis of this principle in the argumentation of public issues. Emotions and partial truths tend to dominate in the argumentation of difficult questions, the nuclear freeze being a current example.

It will be recognized that each civic principle identifies a pattern of behavior which must prevail and therefore must be instilled in the hearts and minds of the citizens, the three principles we have cited pointing variously to the necessity for lawfulness, truthfulness, a respect for the rights of others, and the intelligent fulfillment of one’s voting privilege. Moral education is the automatic partner of and the necessary complement to citizenship education. While there will be some principles on which curriculum planners may readily reach an agreement, the difficult part of arriving at a full agenda for civic and moral education is how to deal with subjects on which there is strong disagreement. In this respect, the experience of the United States offers guidance.

Benefits of decentralized control

Intil quite recently in America, the primary authority for the governance of education was decentralized. It was the responsibility of each local school board and each board of trustees of a college or university to determine the educational purposes and priorities that would prevail in the program under its jurisdiction. The benefits of decentralized control were many and substantial. In the first place, there was a wholesome diversity of policies, programs, and techniques which not only well served the pluralistic nature of the nation, but also led to wide experimentation in the improvement of educational programs. In the second place, a great many citizens, and especially the parents of students, were able to involve themselves in the deliberations about the educational program because they had direct access to the people of their own community who controlled the policy decisions of the schools. Furthermore, if the decisions made by the school policymakers did not satisfy the people, they could take action to elect different policymakers. Those who governed the educational program had to be responsible to the parents of the students. And finally, when the primary determinant in educational policies is the central government, as is now case in the United States, any effort to address such matters as moral and civic education is reduced to the lowest common denominator of agreement. And in the present state of our culture, that means virtual oblivion. One is inclined to believe that what is gained by the decentralization of educational responsibility is greater than what is lost through an absence of national standards and uniform priorities.

Well, what have we said here? First, that every frew society must find ways to deal with the conflict between the desires of the individual and the obligations he must accept as a member of the community. Second, that the process of formal schooling is the mechanism by which the society assures that the common interests are protected and that this is done by training the young people to understand their own nation, to adopt its ideals, and to abide by its requirements. Third, that one of the absolutely fundamental requirements of the free society is the acceptance by the citizens of many informal codes of conduct, those standards of behavior constituting the means by which the free society addresses that tension between the individual and the group. Fourth, that whereas the schools and colleges in the United States and some other nations formerly transmitted the ideals and the informal codes of conduct quite effectively through graining a high priority to character education and citizenship education, that activity has largely been discontinued. One observer has phrased this change as a shift from education to learning. And here, I wish to pikc up a loose end. In mentioning the conflict between the principles governing education, I should have observed that there is no reason why those two functions cannot be conducted on the same premises with productive interaction so long as the distinguishing principles of each are recognized and appropriately safeguarded. Fifth, we have commented upon the processes of determining what should comprise the agenda of character education and citizenship education, with the principles of the free society constituting the absolute base for that determination.

The educational system has largely disassociated itself from one of its functions, a function that is critically important to the strength and survival of a free society. We have, in the United States, produced several generations of cultural orphans, people who have little knowledge and even less appreciation of their heritage of freedom, or the struggles and sacrifices which produced it. By failing to impart to our citizens a passionate devotion to their freedom and an understanding of their obligations as free citizens, we have inadvertently engaged in a kind of unilateral intellectual disarmament which could well prove more devastating to the cause of liberty than would the voluntary destruction of our defense arsenals.

I suggest that there is no task of such importance for the schools and colleges, and few tasks of such importance for free governments, as the reconstitution of effective programs of moral and civic education.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group