The Bookish Virtues
Perry Glanzer on Public-School Character Education
Should state legislatures tell us what kind of character our children should acquire? Actually, many states already do. Seven states recently passed a law requiring public schools to teach students “courage.” Texas and Virginia mandate that students learn to be “reliable,” and Arizona insists that they learn “orderliness,” while five states (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas) now require that children acquire “patience.”
States are legislating virtue like never before. In this case, “virtue” means certain qualities of personal character, a much vaguer and broader category than the classic virtues of courage, temperance, and the like. From 1993 to 2004, almost half the states (23) either passed new laws requiring public schools to teach kids virtues or modified old laws. Add in the three states that had such laws already, and more than half the states in the nation now want public schools to teach children particular virtues to make them good students.
There is little agreement among the lists, which together include 64 character qualities. Arizona requires public schools to teach students “sincerity.” Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina now require children to be taught “cleanliness” and “cheerfulness.” Five states have mandated that children learn “punctuality” (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia). Three states believe children must learn “attentiveness” (Ariz., Florida, and Kentucky). One also finds in these lists of virtues a host of other things probably better identified as values: knowledge (Kentucky), human worth (Kentucky), morality (Nebraska, Oregon, Utah), economic self-reliance (Virginia), and sexual abstinence (South Dakota).
Judging by the laws passed within the last decade, the most prized American virtue is not justice, courage, self-control, or temperance. Nor is it tolerance or honesty. It is “respect.” Americans want their kids to show respect for all kinds of things:
We Americans respect respect. Georgia even lists “respect for the creator”—an addition that will probably one day land them in hot water with the ACLU.
Respect’s closest competitor is “honesty” or “truthfulness” (19 states). Beyond these virtues there is little real consistency.
Virtues or Vices?
Will the legislation of virtue actually work? It would be interesting to learn ten years from now if the people of Arizona are more sincere and the people of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina more cheerful than people in other states. (I’m not sure how one would control an experiment for cheerfulness. Perhaps Georgians have always been more cheerful. Maybe their cheerfulness depends on the weather. Maybe it depends on how many games the Atlanta Braves are winning.)
I must admit that I find this legislation problematic for other reasons besides the question of whether it will work. First, it is not always good to legislate a good thing. State bureaucrats may not define character or the methods by which it can be taught in the way we like. The centralization of character education encourages governments to override the influence of parents, churches, and other elements of civil society—the very groups most needed for the development of virtue.
In fact, the majority of states do not allow the local community to determine whether to undertake character education or even to choose the virtues they want inculcated in their children. Only eight of the twenty-four state laws mention the need to include key stakeholders, such as parents, in the development of the character education program.
A second problem with states mandating what virtues a child should learn is that teaching virtue to students becomes primarily justified on the basis that a democratic society needs virtuous citizens. While democracies need virtuous people, people need a greater reason to be virtuous than political ideology. They also need to know it matters for their souls. Interestingly, Allan Bloom noted that the connection between virtue and the soul was lost when character education became separated from the metaphysical beliefs of Christian and classical thought and was given the pragmatic function of serving the nation-state. The result was that
Religious believers contend that children should acquire virtue for other reasons than the political. Christians argue that since humans are made in God’s image, they fulfill part of their God-ordained purpose by demonstrating the virtues that God demonstrates to us (e.g., love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and so forth). Acquiring virtue is one part of recovering our original created purpose. It is not something we do merely or primarily to help democracy.
The final problem is that, without a shared narrative and communal context, there is nothing to give meaning to the virtues. (In only one state law, North Carolina’s, are the virtues to be taught defined.) What exactly does tolerance mean? Does it include accepting homosexual behavior and “marriage”? Does it include accepting abortion or euthanasia? What exactly do the twelve states promoting responsibility mean? Is having “safe sex” with someone to whom you are not married, or even committed, responsible?
Christians know that virtues actually become vices when they are not properly ordered and directed. Iowa wants kids to learn commitment. Commitment to what? What if they are committed to narcissism? Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia want kids to learn loyalty. Loyalty to what or to whom? And in what way? What if they are fiercely loyal to white supremacism?
Still, I don’t think Christians or other religious believers should give up on character education in public schools. I would merely suggest that character education works best when it enhances and supports the efforts of parents and the local communities to provide the type of character education they believe is best for their kids.
Providing greater parental choice in education would help, but even within public schools, character education would work better if it were supported and guided by parents and teachers, instead of having state legislators determine in Platonic fashion which virtues citizens needed to acquire. Fortunately, a few states, such as Arkansas and Oklahoma, do merely encourage character education and leave the list-making, defining, and teaching to the local communities.
Of course, Christians should not hope for too much from character education in public schools, because the schools cannot teach about the important resources necessary for character development—such as God’s grace, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through the Church, and the models of the saints. Christian practices such as prayer and fasting will be ignored. While public schools should not be entrusted with teaching about these wonders, real character education cannot be taught without them.
Moreover, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out centuries ago, certain distinctive Christian virtues will not make the nonbeliever’s list. We should not be surprised that faith, hope, and charity are missing from any state’s list of virtues, that humility and wisdom are nowhere to be found, and that forgiveness is required only in Arizona. I do hope Arizonans become more forgiving as a result. But I hope they forgive me if I doubt that the attempt to legislate virtue through state governments will create saints, or even communities of character.
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“The Bookish Virtues” first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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