Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.
Monday, October 25, 2010
The Rise of the Bully: Ethics and Education in America
A series of tragic suicides by young people have occurred in our nation over the past several months. The year began with the tragic story of Phoebe Prince, and recently experienced the very public suicide of Tyler Clementi; in between, at least 6 or more similar cases have occurred, many attributed to harassment over a young person’s sexual identity. Bullying is on the rise as teens use the increased access to each others' personal lives afforded by social media as a tool to torment one another. It has gotten so bad that President Obama recently released a public service announcement addressing the problem.
While the teenage suicides are tragic – is there anything sadder than a young person, with a full life yet to live, ending it all? – no one should be surprised by what we are seeing. Am I the only one who finds it hauntingly coincidental that, at the same time legislators are pledging increased commitment to science and mathematics education in America, our schools are experiencing an epidemic of cruelty that borders on barbaric? Science is useful in as much as it assists in diagnosing and finding a cure for a certain disease; mathematics is useful for building a fine bridge or a rocket; unfortunately, neither is of much use when it comes to teaching students to value another human being, or how to respond when being mistreated by one. Those issues, and many like them, are the province of the humanities: history, literature, philosophy, et al. At an hour when our experiences should tell us that we need the humanities the most, it is precisely these subjects which get increasingly short shrift in the government schools.
It is time for some introspection. The liberty and prosperity that Americans enjoy did not grow out of a vacuum: Western Civilization stands of the shoulders of giants. Those giants almost without exception understood the indelible nature of education and moral virtue. For the Greco-Romans, the end goal of education was to create a virtuous person; as the famous French historian, H.-I. Marrou, wrote, “Classical teaching was chiefly interested in the man himself, not in equipping technicians for specialized jobs; and it is this, perhaps, that most sharply distinguishes it from the education of our own time….”  That was written in 1956; imagine how much more acute the difference has become. The American founders understood this principle as well: Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that the key to happiness in this life was to be virtuous, and that he sought “to convince young Persons” that the most important of those virtues for success in life were “Probity and Integrity.” Modern scholars, too numerous to count, have agreed. C.S. Lewis wrote that education without values simply makes man a more clever devil; similarly, Theodore Roosevelt said that to educate a student in mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.
Fast forward to our present straits. We are simply reaping what we have sown over the past four decades. Two landmark Supreme Court decisions in the early 60’s (Engel v. Vitale, and Abington v. Schempp) completed the secularization of the public school system; to avoid the pitched howls of a vast minority, many school administrators are not willing to add classes like Ethics, Comparative Religions, or The Bible as Literature to their available electives. But we should not wonder when we remove “Do unto others as you would have done to you” from the curriculum, and then students treat each other with a feral cruelty. When we encourage students in the belief that there are no moral absolutes, we should not be surprised when they behave like there are no moral absolutes. This is precisely what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote, “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation - we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.” We wish our students would do as they would be done by, but our education is not empowering them to even ask the question; instead, we demand that they increase their math and science scores in hopes that they might be able to build a better widget.
Without a suitable option by the government schools for addressing these problems, parents are seeking alternatives at a staggering rate. There are over 6 million students attending private schools in America, including both daughters of President Obama. According to the NHERI website, there are an estimated 2 million more students who are homeschooled, and that number is growing by 5-10% per year. These numbers are staggering when you consider economics: the government option is paid for by the tax-payers, while parents are paying out of pocket for the alternatives. The bullying crisis will only provide added incentive for parents to consider these other options.
A public service announcement from the leader of our country, however well-intentioned, will not fix the situation. As Einstein opined, it would be insane to do the same thing continually and expect different results. Our ills are systemic, and until the system is fixed nothing will change. Families cannot be expected to send their kids to school to be made clever devils and social menaces any longer; they must be given more and better options. Otherwise, the worst is yet to come.
 I am not sure which I find more disconcerting: that a thirteen year-old would be harassed due to their “sexual identity”, or that a thirteen year-old would have a “sexual identity” to begin with. Add innocence to the long list of virtues that secular progressivism has utterly destroyed. But that topic is for another day.
 H.-I. Marrou, The History of Education in Antiquity, English tr. by G. Lamb, (New York, 1964), p. 302.