Teaching Our Children Well: Rediscovering Moral Principles & History

This posting continues a conversation begun with the previous posting entitled Religious Without Being Morally Serious Vs. Morally Serious Without Being Religious.
Rather than the canard of there being some remnant trying to establish a theocracy in America, I would suggest there is a different dynamic going on. The culture war led by the secular left fundamentalists has accomplished one thing among the religious right that has not happened as significantly in past years: It has united the religious right around certain core moral principles, even though sub-groups of the religious right still – and will always likely – disagree on specific theological positions.
This trend is a potentially profound development. One of the common weaknesses of highly religious people (of both the secular left and religious right) is that they can speak in strident ways that do not seek or place value on developing a broadly held consensus based on some underlying common ground. The idea now that Jews, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants could come together in a reasonably unified position about major moral issues is a significant development.
Most importantly, as Pope Benedict XVI recently stated, none of these groups is being asked to give up their particular religious beliefs. And that means that these groups are learning to use language that identifies a shared core of moral principles but expresses that core in ways that appeal to others outside their specific religious tradition. That represents the true meaning of tolerance, as George Weigel wrote in describing the relevancy of Pope John Paul II’s teachings:

That is why John Paul relentlessly preached genuine tolerance: not the tolerance of indifference, as if differences over the good didn’t matter, but the real tolerance of differences engaged, explored, and debated within the bond of a profound respect for the humanity of the other. Many were puzzled that this Pope, so vigorous in defending the truths of Catholic faith, could become, over a quarter-century, the world’s premier icon of religious freedom and inter-religious civility. But here, too, John Paul II was teaching a crucial lesson about the future of freedom: Universal empathy comes through, not around, particular convictions.

In a separate article, Weigel elaborated on the connection between moral truth and freedom:

…freedom detached from moral truth – the “freedom of indifference” that dominated the high culture of the triumphant West – [is] inevitably self-cannibalizing.
Freedom untethered from truth is freedom’s worst enemy. For if there is only your truth and my truth, and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard (call it “the truth”) by which to adjudicate our differences, then the only way to settle the argument is for you to impose your power on me, or for me to impose my power on you.
Freedom untethered from truth leads to chaos; chaos leads to anarchy; and since human beings cannot tolerate anarchy, tyranny as the answer to the human imperative of order is just around the corner. The false humanism of the freedom of indifference leads first to freedom’s decay, and then to freedom’s demise…

It is the practice of genuine tolerance among the religious traditions that represents a profound development. It also begins to return us to principles articulated by our country’s Founders, few of whom would be classified as religious fanatics but many of whom commented frequently on the importance of morality and religion in public life.
For example, John Adams offered these comments on the importance of morality & religion:

We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other…
Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty.

George Washington made these famous comments in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Adam’s and Washington’s points are elaborated on further from additional sources in a July 4 posting entitled Happy Birthday, America! where the moral uniqueness of the American proposition is highlighted.
Why does this matter? Because there are long-term adverse consequences to the overt displays of contempt toward reasoned moral perspectives playing an important role in the public debate.
Reflect on what lessons we are teaching our children about moral seriousness when the quality of the public debate about important moral issues and their formal instruction on moral thought are shallow – or worse. Joseph Knippenberg comments on the importance of teaching students to think more deeply about such matters in a posting entitled To Nurture Greater Ethical Awareness, Students Need Practice in Moral Discernment:

Let me state this…in both secular and religious ways.
The secular way of putting is that…philosophy is indeed necessary, not in order logically to derive moral principles, but rather to defend them against relativist and nihilist doubts. Aristotle himself works within a moral horizon, offering the most systematic possible account of gentlemanly virtue, but not deducing it from non-moral first principles. A latter-day Aristotelian can offer a defense of sound common sense against the inventions of theory.
From a religious point of view, the college and university experience can help students become more articulate and thoughtful defenders of their faith, open to the larger world, but not vulnerable and defenseless in the face of its challenges.
…the two things most needful for ethics in higher education are religion and philosophy…

Rather than the ridiculous argument that such training is all part of an attempt to turn America into a theocracy, some of us would posit that our children cannot grow into responsible adults without some appreciation for and understanding of universal moral principles, discoverable either through faith or reason or both.
There are equally serious long-term adverse consequences to the overt displays of contempt toward the importance of knowing history, including the Founding Principles of our American tradition.
And that leads naturally into how we teach history to our children, a subject discussed in a posting entitled We Are Paying Quite a Price for Our Historical Ignorance, which included these words:

Our schools teach history ideologically. They teach the message, not the truth…They are propaganda machines….Ignorance of history destroys our judgment…To forget your own history is (literally) to forget your identity. By teaching ideology instead of facts, our schools are erasing the nation’s collective memory…There is an ongoing culture war between Americans who are ashamed of this nation’s history and those who acknowledge with sorrow its many sins and are fiercely proud of it anyway…If you are proud of this country and don’t want its identity to vanish, you must teach U.S. history to your children. They won’t learn it in school. This nation’s memory will go blank unless you act.

We have a moral obligation to teach our children well, to give them the tools necessary to live exemplary lives as free men and women. And that means equipping them with both knowledge of history and sufficient skills at moral discernment. Some of the secular left call such training a pathway toward theocracy. The rest of us call it historically-informed common sense.

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TJ Jackson
TJ Jackson
16 years ago

Great stuff. You are on my daily read list. Kepp up the good work.

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