Churchill Would Be Proud

“Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decision that they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love, and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own…

We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.” (David Brooks in “The Social Animal”)

A high school boy admitted that he readily agreed with Brooks’ thesis, but when that same student was asked if he would attend a workshop, that the school would create to address these issues, he immediately responded, “Of course not. It would be like admitting defeat to everyone.”


15 thoughts on “Churchill Would Be Proud

  1. To some extent, I agree with anon’s post on March 28 that we should “leave moral education to families.”

    After reading the first chapter of Amy Gutmann’s book, “Democratic Education,” however, I would have to side with her when she writes, “A democratic state of education recognizes that educational authority must be shared among parents, citizens, and professional educators” because this “supports the core value of democracy: conscious social reproduction” (42).

    I don’t think that this input should be equal–parents should have a greater say in their children’s moral education–but everyone has a right to be involved in this conversation since the moral education of today’s youth impacts all citizens, not just their parents.

  2. Teachers need to be models of compassion and of integrity. As someone already said, if teachers are models and the IF a school is built on the foundations of compassion and integrity from the admissions process right on out to to the way alumni are engaged, there is little need for explicit instruction. It has to be absorbed by osmosis.
    In speaking of fairness, while all cultures may value this as a virtue, they will have different idea of what the concept is. In some cultures it is fair to pass everything to the eldest son and to pass over a daughter in favour of a younger son. This would be true of many modern monarchies and is true among lesser mortals in many cultures. Not everyone within the culture will agree that it is fair. This is why we are seeing what we are seeing in the Middle East. Ideas of what is fair shift over time. They are not fixed or agreed upon all of the time. Is affirmative action fair? The response will depend on who you ask. Is it fair that our boys receive the very best of everything while other boys do not eat every day and have never been out of the city? Respect? In our North American society we respect our elders by visiting them in the nursing home once in a blue moon. Other cultures respect their elders in ways that are for lack of a better word, more respectful. Much is changing as in the study which showed that there are fewer very elderly Japanese than previously thought. It has long been the case that the elderly were revered and cared for at home. It seems that with modern pressures, some of these elders who died years ago are still kept at home so that the family can receive government money. While these cases are likely a small minority, they do reflect shifting values. Responsibility. Cultures vary in their sense of this. In our society, we are mostly responsible for ourselves. In other cultures, it takes a village, as the saying goes. The kids have their own way of expressing this: you call it cheating and we call it collaboration.

  3. Of course parents are responsible for teaching good manners. Since the school day offers hours of interaction with peers and adults it makes sense that teachers reinforce those lessons of please and thank you and sorry and waiting your turn to speak.
    Knowledge and virtue–define them, please. Whose knowledge and whose virtues? The province sets out a blueprint, for better or worse, that details what knowledge a school ought to cover. If a parent sends a child to a Catholic or other denominational school, they know what virtues they are getting. In more diverse communities, why does the school have the right to determine what the child learns as right and wrong beyond legal-illegal, or acceptable according to the code of conduct vs unacceptable>

  4. Jim,
    How about you stick to the three Rs and leave moral education to families who will have varying opinions on all those big questions. For heavens sake do not go the route of some of the other SEAL schools and put kids in a room with a teacher totally untrained or unsuited to give lessons in character education or moral guidance. Teach good manners, have a code of behaviour and stop worrying so much. Teachers and schools are not the new priests and teachers. Let us stop pretending that values ought to be or can be part of a curriculum. They are lived and imparted by the family, and no wise parent would willingly hand that job off to any school. Schools that take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of all things good and right and moral and ethical are never to be trusted and are opening themselves to potential legal action.

    1. You are right in saying that parents are the primary teachers.

      At the same time, though, haven’t schools always been about teaching knowledge and virtue?

      (By the way, shouldn’t parents be in charge of teaching manners?)

      Thanks for the note.


    2. Russ Kidder did some research on the “whose virtues” question and came to the conclusion that there are 5 virtues that have been valued in all cultures and at all times. They are compassion, integrity, fairness, respect, and responsibility.

      If schools can agree to promote these (or reinforce them, if they’ve been taught at home) then we can avoid the political issues that often drown out character education initiatives.

      If we dodge the challenge of teaching virtue altogether because it’s too hard or too messy or too politically incorrect, then we’re missing something central to our mission.

      Would Hitler’s or Stalin’s former teachers have consoled themselves with lines like, “But he was so good at grammar” or “He was still a wonderful speaker!”

      Thanks again for pushing me on this.


      1. I’ll bite: respect what? What is fairness? (Plato: “What is justice?”) These are concepts upon which you can map a comically large range of actions.

        If Stalin and Hitler’s teachers (and dare I say it? parents?) need consolation, they should probably first take a deep breath, a step back and try to put things in perspective – character is not crafted so simply. Which is not to rule out the possibility that a kind, compassionate teacher could have made all the difference. But who can really tell?

        Regardless, teaching by example is probably the (only?) way to go about character education – and, from personal experience, something the faculty at UCC have generally been fantastic at.

    3. I think you are dead on with the importance of example.

      I remember Kevin Ryan (a guru of character education)’s stressing the “4 E’s”

      Expectations: make them clear
      Exhortations: encourage/challenge boys to be their best selves
      Experience: give students the chance to make decisions and reflect on them
      Example: because values are “caught and not taught”

      And thanks for your comment about UCC teachers. That is VERY encouraging!


  5. I’m not sure emotional intelligence can be taught but when it comes to character, I’m quite certain, nothing matters more.
    David Brooks is so right…

  6. I agree that a “workshop” wouldn’t be the right place to address these important issues and that there is not a “right answer” for life’s big questions.

    At the same time, I wonder if Brooks is on to something. Should we be more explicit about raising the important questions in school?

    Perhaps our indirect — “they’ll pick this up if they just read ‘Hamlet'” approach is insufficient?

    Thanks for the note.


  7. Jim,
    Wonderful article on your blog topic in the National Post written by David Brooks of the New York Times. When I get through my health issues I want to research the connection between “self esteem preservation” parenting and the current research on youth attitudes showing up in economic and political behaviour. If Brook’s view is correct we may be looking at a serious challenge to the risk and cost sharing inter-generational contract and a return of Social Darwinism with an ugly face.


  8. Strikes me as a dangerous thing to even attempt to teach – whom to befriend? What to love? I agree wholeheartedly that these are /the/ important questions in life. But a workshop? These are questions that have to be raised, interrogated and confronted by the individual “on their own” – and I mean, we all do, at some point. Perhaps not explicitly. Perhaps you’re not even aware when you do answer these questions. But to pretend there is a ‘right answer,’ some scheme everyone can and should follow, seems utterly ridiculous. This sounds far way more alarmist than I’d like, but I can not resist: this might be the difference between indoctrination and education.

    Pardon my liberal arts bias – but I think good, sincere answers to these questions have been given, again and again, in literature, and philosophy. These might be places to look for in developing you own – in addition to, you know, life – the real world, other people. If you can workshop these, you may be onto something.

    Just going to toss in a quote I love. I don’t particularly seek to advocate religious sentiment, but I think the point about worshipping is worth dwelling upon. What to love…

    “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

    David Foster Wallace is pretty brilliant, if you have the time, ‘Infinite Jest’ is highly recommended.

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