Down through history, all over the world, education has had two great goals: To help people become smart and to help them become good. This is why President Washington, in his Farewell Address, declared that American democracy would require a people governed by “Private morality.”
To insure this private morality, the need for some form of character education was soon recognized. In the early days of the republic, the Bible was the source book of both moral and religious instruction. When disputes arose over whose Bible to use, William McGuffey offered his McGuffey Readers as a way to teach schoolchildren the “natural virtues” of honesty, hard work, thriftiness, kindness, patriotism, and courage. Thus, from 1836 to the early 1950s, the country used the McGuffey Reader as the primary means of teaching character education in America.
Interestingly – perhaps due to the fact that the McGuffey readers played such a prominent role in American education – newspapers made heavy use of the Bible, and did so through much of America’s history. This observation is supported by the research of Dr. Lincoln Mullen, Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. He has compiled a database cataloging references from the Bible in American newspapers from 1837 to 1922.[i]
Bible verses were once everywhere in newspapers. Nineteenth-century periodicals printed Sunday school lessons, ran Bible clubs for readers and circulated sermons. Editorials alluded to well-known scriptural references, and verses even turned up again and again as the punch lines of jokes.
This practice extended into adulthood the moral and ethical teachings children learned at school and their growing-up years. Thus, even though socio-economic stratification increased, ideological core beliefs, though stretched by “info wars” launched through the period of the muckrakers and yellow dog journalism, were not snapped. These ideological core beliefs reinforced personal responsibility for one’s actions. It was a natural outgrowth of the educational and socialization process that had followed on the heels of the founders’ desire to nurture a society guided in private morality.
Erecting a Wall of Separation That Said “God, Keep Out”
But then, as we have seen, a movement began to remove Christianity from the life of the nation. Building on the crack that had been opened in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, a group of ten parents sued the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in Hyde Park, New York for having the following prayer said aloud in the presence of a teacher every day:
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.”
The decision of Supreme Court in the case of Engel v. Vitale was delivered by Justice Hugo Black in 1962. Representing the majority opinion of 5-2, Black wrote:
“The petitioners contend… that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents’ prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause… We agree with this contention since we think that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government. The New York laws officially prescribing the Regent’s prayer are inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and with the Establishment Clause itself.”
Dissenting against the decision, Justice Potter Stewart wrote:
“I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an “official religion” is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.”
The principles outlined in Engel v. Vitale were extended to a voluntary moment of silence in the 1985 case of Wallace v. Jaffe, when the Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law allowing a moment of silence in public school for “meditation of voluntary prayer.”
The Resulting Situation Called for New Ethics
At the same time the Supreme Court was removing prayer from school, character education gave way to the rise of logical and moral relativism. Efforts to substitute alternative methods of character education, using such works as Joseph Fletcher’s 1966 book, Situational Ethics, clouded rather than clarified moral thinking. Fletcher developed a theory of deciding what was right or wrong in a given situation based on four key principles: Pluralism (Whose values should we teach?), Relativism (All values are relative), Positivism (There is no moral truth, no objective right and wrong) and Personalism (Each person should be free to choose his own values; who are we to impose our values?). In the 1960s and 70s, values education that emphasized “process” or thinking skills — clarifying your values (values clarification), reasoning about values (moral dilemma discussions), and decision making processes — replaced character education’s traditional emphasis on moral content (learning right from wrong and acting rightly).
The McGuffey Readers were replaced with what came to be called “Basal readers.” Children were subjected to stories about Dick and Jane and “See Spot Run.” Students were required to complete fill in the blank sentences with words that best completed the thought. However, these books had no real story line. Eventually, a parental backlash grew in some parts of the country:
“As the debate goes on, growing numbers of schools are trying to replace the basal readers with books that contain really interesting stories. Some schools are even going so far as to dust off McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers – first published almost 150 years ago, in 1836. Sales of those manuals, with old but often great stores, rose from about 10,000 in 1975 to 217,000 last year, according to a report in the November issue of Smithsonian magazine.”
As the public schools graduated the students who had been exposed to school prayer pre-Engle v. Vitale, a new generation grew up that had been reared on the teachings of situational ethics. The business community began to realize that the students entering university lacked a background in ethics. Thus, they began to create business ethics courses. November 1974 marked the birth of business ethics courses when a conference on business ethics was held at the University of Kansas. The proceedings of that conference led to the creation of the first courses on business ethics. [i]
The Closing of the American Mind and the Loss of Our Moral Bearings
The culmination of this trend toward values neutral character education was captured by Allan Bloom in his 1987 book titled: The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom analyzed Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings and applied them to the state of American education. Bloom wrote “the great danger, according to Tocqueville, is enslavement to public opinion. The claim of democracy is that every man decides for himself.”[i] Bloom argued that the new model of “value relativism” Fletcher helped create allowed students to excuse themselves of that which their parents and grandparents once called sin.[ii]
Understanding the impact of value relativism on the educational system, Bloom explained “The Closing of the American Mind” as follows:[iii]
“The upshot of all this for the education of young Americans is that they know much less about American history and those who were held to be its heroes. … relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life. Young Americans have less and less knowledge of and interest in foreign places. [This] openness results in American conformism – out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here we can create all the life-styles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing.” (emphasis added).
The very same year that Bloom’s book was published, Time Magazine’s May 25, 1987 cover story was titled “What Ever Happened to Ethics?” The article “pitch” on the magazine cover stated: “Assaulted by sleaze, scandals and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings.”
The juxtaposition of these two thoughts – one, that value relativism was doing away with the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong; and the second, that moral and ethical behavior seemed a thing of the past – was striking. For a host of reasons, from court decisions like Engle vs. Vitale, to government policies that have weakened the family, America has gone from a society based on Christian principles to a society based on secular principles, and now, a society whose principles are increasingly anti-Christian. Some see this as a good thing, but let us ask three simple questions:
Q1: If you do not believe in a divine moral law ordained by a Creator, how can you possibly expect people to be ethical, let alone teach ethics?
A1: Without coercion, you can’t.
Q2: And, if you can’t expect people to be ethical out of their own volition, how can you expect them to show up for work on time, put in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, and view a job well done as a calling to which they naturally aspire, rather than see their jobs as tasks they grudgingly do to avoid threats and penalties?
A2: Again, the answer is, you can’t.
Q3. Finally, what is the logical outcome over a sustained period of time in which these two trends grow and take hold in the behavior of the American People?
A3: The answer is, you will have a society in which fewer and fewer people see the value in working hard for the sake of working hard, being willing to create jobs that employ others – and a society in which more and more people who have come to see the coercion of people as a means to get the results one wants. This growing class of people will, in turn, expect – nay, demand – that someone (i.e. “the rich”) be forced to take care of them.
Toppling the Pillars of The Four Founding Virtues
Today, the pillars of Murray’s Four Founding Virtues have crumbled under the cultural onslaught we have witnessed in recent decades. As we welcome yet another new term, “fake news,” into our vocabulary, Americans are asking the same question posed in Psalm 11:3: If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?
These four pillars have been replaced with an ideological stratification that has created a host of people groups all clamoring for, but never finding, equality. All this has happened because those who wish to change the character of the American people are better at using the tools of education and communication than those who wish to preserve it.
In the ninth article in my series of posts on The Unraveling, I will explore how those who have promoted the deconstruction of the American Way of Life are using the tools of social media to pursue their goals. If you have a desire to review the previous posts in this series, click to read the previous posts in this series.
This series is based on an essay that I have written which you can find at www.wisejargon.com/docs/theunraveling.pdf. In that essay I lay out my thoughts as concisely as I can, with a full series of references endnotes (27 for those with a scholarly bent). In this series of posts, I wish to expand on the original essay, and make it easier to digest via social media.
I also wish to invite a discussion on this topic. To do so, please see my posts at DISQUS.
It’s time that all of us work together to reverse course, and restore the American spirit of self-reliance and pride in self-accomplishment exemplified the American spirit.
[i] Bloom, Allan. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York, New York. Simon and Schuster.
[ii] Ibid, p. 142.
[iii] Ibid, p. 34.
[i] George, RT. (2015, November 17). A History Of Business Ethics. Retrieved from Markkula Center For Applied Ethics: https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/business-ethics/resources/a-history-of-business-ethics/
[i] Zauzmer, Julie. The Washington Post. “Newspapers were once full of Bible quotes – and a local professor’s tool lets us learn from them,” 8/3/2016. Accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/08/03/newspapers-were-once-full-of-bible-quotes-and-a-local-professors-tool-lets-us-learn-from-them/ on 11/25/2016.