I am a teacher. I understand the value of learning the “3 R’s”. I believe all sorts of schooling scenarios can work: public school, private school, home school or even guided independent study. A lot depends on the teacher and the type of student(s) involved. However, I also know that there are things even more important than the basics of reading, writing and computational skills.
And character is not as easy to quantify, teach or assess. Many schools institute a type of values education, but this is often just an add-on to an already over-crowded curriculum. The teachers resent having one more topic to cover and the kids sense their ambivalence. Not a recipe for success, which is why these programs never seem to go the distance. They pop up only to disappear once the teacher or administrator who spearheaded the program moves on to something else. At the same time we are learning more and more about just how important character is in determining the quality of your life.
Your character can be defined as how well you abide by the four classical virtues, one of which, Temperance has been in the news lately. Back in the early 1970‘s Stanford did a study to see if four-year-old kids had an innate sense of temperance, or self-control. They put a child alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were free to eat it, but if they could resist for a set amount of time they would receive two marshmallows. Turns out, some kids were better at this than others. The finding were an interesting curiosity at the time, but decades later the follow up data has made news once again.
Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.
Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.
What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.
While it is always nice to have scientific back-up, the fact that virtue takes practice is hardly new. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle said that excellence, or virtue of character was a habit more than anything else. We need to constantly exercise our self-control over small things if we ever expect it to “work” when the big temptations of life come along. Many religions instinctively realize this, hence the self-limiting disciplines- no meat on Fridays or set times for prayer. It is not that these specific practices need to have a dogmatic relevance; it is that they help train your self-control muscles as it were.
This is where the tricky part comes in to play. We currently live in a culture that values instant gratification. Self-control is almost looked at as a vice, rather than a virtue in many cases. How many parents give their children everything they could want, and do so out of sincere love, only to be stripping them of the opportunity to train the temperance muscle.
The same goes for adults, myself included. One of the unforeseen benefits of the hard economic times we are currently facing in much of the western world is the drying up of readily available credit. Most of us can not simply whip out the plastic and make spontaneous purchases anymore. But this is a good thing. Part of being human is dealing with lack. It is unnatural to live in a perpetual state of plenty. Just watch one of those lottery-ruined-my-life shows to see how having everything soon leads to nothing.
Self-control, Temperance, a classical virtue that is being thrust, unwelcome, upon many of us could be just the training we need in a 21st century world. Which brings us back to schools. How do we incorporate true character education? Again, they best society has come up with is often based in or around religion, therefore religious schools have the best track record here. Is there a way to bring this to a secular public school setting? This is a topic I will be exploring in the future and I welcome any thoughts below in the comment section.
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be?
We like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?
The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4
The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.
I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the past few weeks and a section really got me thinking about the whole idea of the need for virtue in the political world. I apologize for the long quote, but I certainly can’t summarize Lewis’ point better than he does himself.
When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.
What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.
I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this point. Unless we fix ourselves we really can not fix society. I am not suggesting that we stand by and let the country go to hell while we work on some sort of new age self improvement. What I am suggesting is that we hold our leaders to a higher standard. We need men and women who are serious, and who conduct themselves is a manner that is in accordance with some basic virtues. Otherwise we will just end up with more of the same.
Flannery O’Connor was an American novelist, short-story writer and essayist, who wrote two novels and many short stories, as well as a number of reviews and essays. O’Connor’s writing usually reflected her Roman Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics. (As an aside, one of my personal favorites of her is A Good Man is Hard to Find.)
One of her many essays dealt with what was then the modern high school education. The quote that I came across that motivated this post is:
The proper business of the high school is “preparing foundations”; it is ABSOLUTELY NOT immersing young people in the already-too-familiar aesthetic tastes and moral realities of modernity; it is certainly not amusing them with exciting stories of sex and violence. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
If she is right, then the last few generations have been formed without a foundation at all. There is a whole genre of literature now dealing with young adult fiction that caters to their tastes. While some of it I would argue has the ability to elevate, such as the Harry Potter series, much of it is largely soap opera drivel, such as the Twilight series.
While part of me agrees with her point, I also wonder how many more young adults readers there are now than in the 1960’s when O’Connor wrote her essay. I think there is something to be said for developing a habit of reading, even if that habit is fed with low quality/high entertainment value literature at first. Eventually taste will improve, and if the student is of a humanities bent then higher education will point him to better forms of literature.
That said, at some point a firm foundation in the classics is truly invaluable. But I do wonder if it is harder to go backwards if your tastes have been formed on a diet of modern, largely empty fiction. Can you tell I am conflicted?
Today is The Annunciation according to the traditional Catholic calendar. This is when Catholics celebrate the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. A site I sometimes read had a unique representation of The Annunciation that got me thinking about art and it’s role in how we envision religion.
I would venture to guess that many people of my generation picture Jesus looking like Robert Powell, the actor from the famous 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. This movie, which was shown every Easter season for years made an indelible mark on an entire generation.
If we travel back in time to the long march of history before television, art still shaped how we view much of religion. From Leonardo’s David, to Michelangelo’s ceiling, artists have told us what famous Biblical characters and scenes looked like. Before wide spread literacy, paintings and stained glass were in fact the main source of information about much of religious history.
However, because of this emphasis on classical artistic depiction do we create a barrier between ourselves and religion? Is it easier to keep the troubling theological aspects of the reality behind The Annunciation, Resurrection or Transfiguration at arm’s length because we envision them as part of some long-distant, almost mythological past. Would those who think nothing of accepting the reality of an angel visiting a 13 yr old girl and announcing her mystical pregnancy feel the same way if a similar situation happened today, in a modern setting?
I am not trying to start a religious debate; I am simply asking the question out loud- does our classical art influenced mental image of Biblical events make them easier to accept? Below are two paintings that got me thinking about this. Each represents a traditional narrative in a modern setting.
|This Annunciation is set in suburbia, but the symbolism is quite traditional. Mary is reading from Isaiah about the Virgin who conceives and bears a son. The lily represents her purity, and she is welcoming St. Gabriel. By JOHN COLLIER|
|Joseph dressed as a carpenter with the Child Jesus standing beside him. Jesus holds a plumb line to say that He, as the Plumb Line, is a fixed point against which all else can be measured. By JOHN COLLIER|
The title for this post comes from an article by Ian Leslie that deals largely with the idea that actors and writers are at heart artistic liars, whose lies are seeded with a deeper truth. The full quote follows:
Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.
“Americans view the Founding Fathers in vacuo, isolated from the soil that nurtured them,” says Traci Lee Simmons in his book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.
It is certainly true that little thought is given by the everyday American as to what the foundation of our own founders was.
This is to our own detriment, for if we paid attention to this we would see a way forward for education in America. So, how were the founders educated? Through a Classical education. Simmons elaborates,
“These men, had read and digested Polybius, Aristotle, and Cicero, and they used the ancient luminaries to frame and illustrate their ideas before the assembly…These heated yet erudite debates, along with the Federalist Papers, fairly pullulate both with subtle classical allusions—with which Madison, Hamilton, and Jay assumed readers to be tolerably familiar—and direct references to the leagues—Amphictyonic, Achaean, Aetolian, Lycian—formed by the ancient Greeks in order to achieve political and physical security.”
Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included.
I, for one, wish them well and hope the experiment works. Until we have a generation of citizens capable of the critical thought that the 21st century will require we will be stuck with the back and forth political ping pong that we have been subjected to over the previous century. Coincidentally, this is exactly the same time period during with Dewey’s practical philosophy of Progressivism dethroned classical education from our schools. On second thought, maybe it is not such a coincidence after all.