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Are character strengths enough?

October 17th, 2011

by Kevin Ryan

Teaching virtues to school children is only one part of handing on our moral heritage.

Two decades ago Harvard historian, Richard Hunt, coined the phrase, “no-fault history”, reportedly based on his experience teaching undergraduates his course on modern German history. In discussing the extermination policies and other unspeakable evil decisions of Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, Hunt’s undergraduates could not bring themselves to judge them as evil. “How can we judge Hitler?” they asked. “We don’t know how his parents treated him. Hitler was a victim of his own background, his conditioning. We don’t know the whole story. How can we say an individual is evil? Who are we to judge?” Who indeed?

Hunt’s description of his elite students’ inability to hold human beings accountable for their actions should have been the canary in the coal mine for what has evolved since: the near disappearance of moral language and, thus, moral concepts among American youth.

A just released book, Lost In Transition, by sociologist Christian Smith, can be read as the “coming attractions” for a moral Dark Ages. For over ten years, Smith and his team of researchers have been studying a large sample of American youth. Their recent study focused on a carefully selected subset of youth, ages 18 to 23, and began with long, open-ended interviews probing their moral beliefs and attitudes.

What the researchers found was a wide and deep mental canyon, devoid of moral words or ethical principles. Two out of three could not conjure up a moral dilemma that they had ever faced. When confronted with moral dilemmas and problems, their reaction was not based on ethical principles or religious dicta, but how they “felt” about the issue. “Whether or not I have an abortion depends on how I feel about it. It’s not a matter of right and wrong.” “I’m not good at the right and wrong stuff, but I know what I want to do.” It is all very personal. Very me-oriented. Very emotions-based.

Having just come through what is arguably the bloodiest century in human history, this study of the moral vision and understanding of our young is especially frightening. The 20th century — when warfare morphed from battlefield combat between professional soldiers to the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children, and where efficient extermination factories were built — should have jarred awake our moral sensibilities. And, too, this still new 21st century has inherited huge ethical challenges, from the on-going threat of nuclear and biological warfare to the life threatening destruction of our fragile ecosystem.

One might expect in the face of these global problems that families, schools and churches would be making an all-out effort to pass on to our young as vigorously as possible our heritage of moral thought. While clearly there is no dearth of individual efforts to ignite the consciences and moral vision of our children, the Smith study suggests the institutional effort is lacking. The “if-it-feels-good-it’s-okay” morality is winning and it is the death knell of civilization.

Schools, traditionally, have had a dual mission: knowledge transmission and moral development. Socrates said it best: education should make us both smart and good. Since the Second World War, in the United States and many parts of the developed world the school’s role of transmitting a moral code been given scant attention. In a crazy bit of “democratic logic” the question, “Whose moral values can I teach?” has paralyzed educators.

The fact that democracy is based on moral concepts and values, such as fairness, justice, and personal responsibility seems somehow to have eluded the modern educators. Instead, they have taken up with every individual-focused movement, from self-esteem to learning how to be your own best friend, that the psychological community has been selling. And, as Smith’s research cited above demonstrates, they have succeeded in their mission: a youth cohort with a moral vision that ends at their own nose.

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  1. Roivas
    October 17th, 2011 at 14:12 | #1

    “Having just come through what is arguably the bloodiest century in human history,”

    In terms of pure numbers, yes. In terms of percentage of total population killed, we are doing far better than the past.

  2. nerdygirl
    October 18th, 2011 at 19:29 | #2

    “Socrates said it best: education should make us both smart and good”

    Socrates wasn’t teaching the gospel.

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