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 Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand.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.[1] 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….” [2] 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.

[1] 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.
[2] H.-I. Marrou, The History of Education in Antiquity, English tr. by G. Lamb, (New York, 1964), p. 302.


  1. But is it the place of our schools to teach the whole person or the parent? If I do not agree with their teaching methods or ideology, why would I want them morality, secular or not. Unfortunately, the more often parents set aside being the adult for being their child's friend, the more often the schools will want to be "the village" that raises the kids.

    I think that part of this also is the emasculation of society. If two boys go out on the playground and slug out their differences they are expelled under zero tolerance guidelines. So instead it is subverted into cyber- and gender-bullying.

    Sometimes a broken nose is a better solution.

  2. DD, you raise the right issues. The unfortunate thing about a blog post is that I try to keep them short and thought-provoking, so I can't necessarily express all I want to on the topic. That's certainly true here. My end game isn't for the government schools to start teaching Christian ethics again, although I think they could meet us half-way and reintroduce teaching religious texts as literature, teaching philosophy/logic, etc. My end game is for the government to empower parents to choose other options (private/parochial schools, home-schooling, etc) by way of a tax-credit to all parents who choose other options for educating their kids. It seems like a win-win (aren't the government schools always complaining about overcrowding?) until you consider that the educational establishment is perfectly content with their monopoly and they aren't about to surrender the power to brainwash all our children in secular progressive ideology under the illusion of moral neutrality. Anyway, that's a post for another day.

    And yes, I agree. Sometimes this is better:

  3. Your call for a return to the humanities is well received. As we have it now, these offerings are scarcely served on the table of pubic education. The call raises an interesting question however: what would you make of the factory-like parochial schools that churn out godless automatons? Or the stereotypical preacher's kid? Or better yet, of Judus Iscariot-- did he not have the most sublime Teacher? Please don't misunderstand, your prescription for meaningful instruction-- instruction that informs the soul-- IS woefully scant or missing in the public sector. We are agreed here. And while that is troubling to me, I see a deeper problem. It is difficult to explain in a line of prose. It is the idea that education, any kind of education is all that is needed. When did the instruction of the soul get passed onto public or private institutions anyway? Didn't hundreds of years of this type of education leave Europe a spiritual graveyard?

  4. Okay, I've gathered my thoughts. More specifically, can you instruct the tender heart-condition that would lead an individual to even care about these humanities? Just because you put it on the table doesn't mean people will choose to ingest. Think mushrooms. I don't even know what to call this heart-condition. But all of this higher-education is meaningless without the fear of God.... and can you instruct that? Otherwise it's all conjecture and stuffy ideas about a bunch of old people thought. Moreover, I contend that much of this higher education ends up a thinly polished veneer over what rings empty and rote in the ears of the uncaring.

  5. Great questions all, Matt. I'll do my best to thoughtfully entertain them, if I can't outright answer them. Instead of writing One Post to Rule Them All, we'll try to handle this piece-meal so we can debate the issues.

    First, we can both agree that education is not a panacea for all that ails our society. In an ideal world, the "instruction of the soul" wouldn't fall solely on educational institutions. That's not what I'm advocating. In an ideal world, the educator would only partner with parents, pastors, and mentors to cultivate in students the heart condition that you are talking about.

    We agree: the fear of God is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom. Without that, students can't move on to true knowledge of anything. It is through that prism that the Christian student should learn history, philosophy, literature, math, science, et al. The problem now is not only is the educator not a partner with the parents or pastor, but they often work in opposition - sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not; for example:,2933,345274,00.html. People like Corbett (and Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.) aren't presenting the issues fairly and equally so students can decide for themselves. They use their position to defame and marginalize Christianity under the guise of "opening minds" and "teaching [students] how to think." My point is only that Christian families have sent their kids away to the lion's den for 8 hours a day for long enough. It is time to demand better for our kids.

    How are we doing so far?

  6. You concede that the government system then is often hostile to the Christian worldview? I feel like you are letting me get away with something here. I expected something like, “Come on, Browne. It’s not as bad as all that!” A few points in my defense before moving on…

    The most significant part about the court case that I linked is not that the court found him guilty of only one charge – the one where he attacked a fellow instructor who was a Christian; the most significant piece of the story is that the school district dismissed the complaints to begin with. And that in light of the fact the student had the instructor on tape. This never would have become a story had a.) the student not complained; and b.) the parents had not decided to sue when their complaints were dismissed by the school district. This guy had been going on these anti-Christian tirades for fifteen years before someone decided to call him on it. How many similar cases happen every day where the students don’t complain, and parents don’t escalate their concerns when the local district dismisses them?

    Corbett is an example of overt opposition to the Christian worldview that can be found in the government system; I would argue that there is a much more subtle – and perhaps even more insidious – opposition that happens when students are indoctrinated in a secular humanist worldview. In science class, students are taught that they are evolved from monkeys, that they, too, are animals, governed by the same base and primal instincts. In history class, they are taught that the spiritualism of the “Dark Ages” was barbaric, backwards, and destructive; and conversely, that the “Enlightenment Age” rationalists saved us from all that crazy, superstitious, spiritual mumbo-jumbo. In reality, both are misnomers: the “Dark Ages” weren’t nearly so dark, and the “Enlightenment” wasn’t nearly so enlightened. In lit class they learn that they must “believe in themselves”, that people are intrinsically good, and that man is advancing forward on path to perfection (or at least improvement.) All of these ideas stand in stark contrast to the Christian worldview, and yet we don’t protest (much) when our kids are spoon-fed it day in and day out. And then we wonder why they don’t grow up to be C.S. Lewises or G.K. Chestertons.

    Any of that cause you some discomfort?

    (P.S. sorry it took me so long to respond. I’ve been busy. TJ has been gone since Sunday, and I submitted my manuscript to Dr. Odahl today.)

  7. I concede. Your statment about partnering with pastors and parents has spared you from the dreaded triple-barbed hook-- that few have shielded-- and some have called... LINDLEY.

  8. Excellent. I've fallen victim to the LINDLEY before, so I'm relieved to have avoided it... for now.

    Your very astute question, then, was, can you instruct the fear of God? I’m excited to hear your answer, but mine is, “Yes, and no.” The Scriptures are full of exhortations to educate children in the "training and admonition of the Lord," which would presumably include teaching children to fear - or respect - God. Proverbs 4 seems to be a clear example. I think we must confess that it is possible.

    So if it is possible, why doesn't it happen in every case, such as those you cited? Great question. For obvious reasons the fear of the Lord has to be taught early and consistently. If a child isn't raised respecting God, it takes a personal experience to change their perspective. This goes for every form of respect: if a child is raised using profanity and disrespecting adults, they aren’t going to reach their teenage years and suddenly decide that any of that is a bad idea. If an education isn't consistent, students get conflicting messages and for different reasons may or may not keep the faith.

    This much seems reasonable at least: what good does it do you as a parent if you try to train your child to respect God if you send them off to school for 8 hours a day and they are, at best, inundated with materialism and hedonism, or at worst, told that religion (and implicitly, God) are plagues on the human race? These messages get compounded by peer pressures and the god-complex of the modern-day secular humanist.

    One more thing before I let you jump in: all learning has the potential to be “empty and rote in the ears of the uncaring.” This isn't a danger particular to the humanities. I can force a student to memorize their sums, but unless they see how they can use them to manage their accounts or build a bridge, it won’t mean anything to them and they’ll get bored. I can teach a student their periodic table and organic chemistry, but if they can't translate their learning into curing diseases or preventing famines, its all "empty and rote." Consider your profession: I can teach all about different disorders and their symptoms, but unless we examine how they develop and what might work to cure them, the lessons won’t be very interesting or meaningful. Instructors of all disciplines have to find a way to get their students engaged, to show them how their discipline bears real-life applications. It is my opinion that because the humanities – and history in general – are taught so poorly that it often bears the qualities of being “rote and empty.”

    Any thoughts?