At some schools, usually independent (not accepting federal dollars) and religious, students read old books, including Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, they read the story of Gyges’ ring that makes the wearer of it invisible. One of Socrates’ conversants in the Republic, a young man named Glaucon (who happened to be Plato’s older brother; both were students of Socrates), raises the question: ‘Why would a man in possession of such a ring not use it to do and obtain whatever he wishes? Why would he not use the ring’s powers, for instance, to become a tyrant?’ In response, Socrates turns the discussion to another question: ‘What is the right way for a man to live? What is just by nature and what is unjust?’
In parochial schools, such as John Paul II Catholic High School (where I teach), students are also regularly guided by the teachings of the Bible. With respect to the teachings of Jesus, it was Jesus himself who boiled the lessons down to two commandments. When asked by a teacher of law which of God’s laws are most important (Mark 12:28-31), Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As with books like the Republic, the teachings of the Bible emphasize the proper way for a man to live. They establish a value system of love, compassion, and charity. They teach that individuals should use their talents, their abilities, their powers to do good, and not just for themselves but for others as well.
These Socratic questions were once at the center or core of education. But in American education as a whole, and thanks in great part to policies directed by the federal government, these questions have been abandoned. Teaching ‘morality,’ as it turns out, is too offensive. Even sadder is the tacit denial that such a focus in education serves no sound social purpose. Thankfully, these Socratic and Socratic-type questions remain at the center or core of education at many institutions that believe that a proper education includes an emphasis on morality and ethics.
At John Paul II Catholic High School, St. Peter’s, and other parochial schools, and perhaps some charter schools as well, there is often a core group of course that all students, regardless of their path, are required to take. This core has a unifying principle, as explained above, such as the idea that there is a right way to live.
Compare this to the “core” that defines the latest bright idea of the education establishment – Common Core. At its core is the imposition of national one-size-fits-all, copyrighted and licensed educational standards on American public schools all across the country for top-down universal control over the teaching of our children. When one looks into Common Core, it becomes clear that it has no unifying principle, such as I have described above.
Absent the kind of questions posed by Socrates in the Republic or the lessons of community found in the Bible, or in the plays of Shakespeare that pit good versus evil/right versus wrong, modern educators treat students chiefly as factors of production, as moldable young adults to be trained for productive jobs, as dictated by the economy at the time. And although we all wish productive jobs for our children, as parents we know that they are not chiefly job-seekers or factors of production. “After all, how many of us, if we were given the choice between having our children earn a lot of money and being bad, or struggling economically and being good, would choose the former?”
Another example of the turn taken by modern education is exemplified by a passage from the Teacher’s Guide for Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, published in 1991 by the College Board – the influential organization that, among other things, administers the SAT exam. It was written by an English professor from Agnes Scott College in Georgia:
“AP teachers are implementing the best of the new pedagogies that have influenced leading institutions of higher learning. Perhaps most importantly, as Arthur Applebee explains, ‘objectivity’ and ‘factuality’ have lost preeminence. Instruction has become ‘less a matter of transmittal of an objective and culturally sanctioned body of knowledge,’ and more a matter of helping individuals learn to construct their own realities. This moves English courses away from the concept of subject matter to be memorized and toward ‘a body of knowledge, skills, and strategies that must be constructed by the learner out of experiences and interactions within the social context of the classroom.’ Emphasis is on the processes of language and thought, ‘processes that are shaped by a given cultural community and which also help students become part of the cultural community.’ Contemporary educators no doubt hope students will shape values and ethical systems as they engage in these interactions, acquiring principles that will help them live in a mad, mad world.”
Thomas Jefferson, perhaps one of our more prolific Founding Fathers, wrote or had his hand directly in at least four of the five organic laws that provide the ideological and legal foundation of our country. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, gave direction to James Madison in his drafting of the US Constitution, and provided the voice of reason and conscience to Madison again when it came time to add a Bill of Rights. The Northwest Ordinance, adopted in 1787, and passed again in 1789, contains the following beautiful sentence: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Accordingly, Congress proceeded to give 1/36th of the land in the vast Northwest Territory – including Michigan and four other states – as an endowment, controlled by the states, to support education in each township.
Consider the current text of the North Carolina state constitution (the constitution of 1971; see below), which sets forth government’s obligations in the state. Article I, Sec. 15 (Education”) provides: “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” Article IX, Sec. 1 deals specifically with Education in the state. That section (“Education encouraged”) reads: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Could the difference be more stark between the older and newer goals of education? Between leading students toward an understanding of the right way to live in a comprehensible world, and telling them they must shape their own values and make their own reality in a world gone mad? And why aren’t more states, like my state of North Carolina which has vowed to guard and maintain its right to provide education to its citizens (and to promote morality), rejecting Common Core?
So, what is the right way for a man and a woman to live?
Do we trust that question to a government that has vowed to remain neutral on religion and on morality (tipping clearly towards immorality) and conducts itself in every instance without ethics? Or do we reflect on that question in our own states and ask ourselves what we would like to expect from our own citizens? Ultimately, parents want to be proud of their children.
[Note: The NC state constitution has been amended several times. The original constitution, adopted in 1776 by the general assembly (no input from the people) created the government for the new state; the constitution of 1868 was adopted and submitted to the US Congress for approval as required for re-admission to the Union after the Civil War (later amended to end discrimination against African Americans); and the constitution of 1971, which reorganized the entire state government in light of the requirements of the modern economy and society (more of a reorganization rather than adding anything new)].
** [This short article is based on an article by Larry P. Arnn, Hillsdale College, Dec. 2013, Vol. 42, No. 12.]