Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Education and Character: A Conservative View

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Education and Character: A Conservative View

Article excerpt

Good character education is made up of three elements, Mr. Doyle avers - example, study, and practice. In the final analysis life is about moral choices, not about technique or spontaneous unfolding.

From the time of the ancient Greeks to sometime in the late 19th century, a singular idea obtained: education's larger purpose was to shape character, to make men (and later, women) better people. Education and training were not confused. Education was "liberal" - from liberalis, the Latin for "free," as distinct from slave. Training was (as it remains today) narrow and functional. Education imparted fundamental knowledge - or content, as we would think of it today. It was both essential and instrumental. Mastery of content was the device by which one achieved mastery of self and, in turn, mastery over nature. Born naked and ignorant, humans had neither the tools - teeth that rip, claws that tear, wings that soar, or fins that swim - nor the instincts to survive on their own.

No animal is so dependent for so long as the human animal. Yet humans need more than nurturing parents; we need a supportive social order in which to live and thrive. As Aristotle knew, we are political animals: it is our fate - which is to say, our opportunity and our obligation - to live in the polis. Without it we cannot survive. We also need time. Time and the city: we cannot live without culture. Which is to say we cannot live without language. Finally, we cannot live without values. While these three threads are analytically distinct, they are inexorably woven together.

Obvious? Perhaps, but in the present climate of education it bears repeating. Culture. Language. Values. In the beginning was the word. A religious conception, to be sure, but an anthropological one as well. One need not believe John to appreciate his insight. Culture is the set of social arrangements we have chosen to organize our lives. Language is culture's quintessential tool, for it permits us to communicate with one another and across time and space. It permits culture to come into existence and to remain over time. And values are the engine that defines and drives culture. We choose Athens or Sparta, tolerance or belligerence, the way of Cato the Elder or that of Cincinnatus.

Values are the embodiment of choices; we can choose to forbear or to indulge. Or, as the ancient Greeks and later Romans knew so well, we can choose when to forbear and when to indulge. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine (from whose name the modem name Denis is derived), stands in counterpoise to Apollo, god of reason. They exist in sharp tension: one, the god of abandon; the other, the god of restraint. Such is the enduring power of myths that they embody living truths today no less than yesterday. Today, of course, the political scientist more readily thinks of Rousseau and Hobbes - the modern exemplars of self-indulgence and self-restraint - than of Dionysus and Apollo. Indeed, as E. D. Hirsch so ably and persuasively demonstrates in his new book, The Schools We Need, it is the legacy of Rousseau, filtered through romanticism, that explains today's educational wilderness. This heritage does much to explain our cultural wilderness as well.

Self-expression rather than self-restraint, a belief that the child knows more than the adult, a conviction that children are innately good and need only to be nourished for a spontaneous unfolding to occur - these are the ideas of Rousseau and the romantic (whether Schiller or Whitman). To .any parent .they even have the ring of partial truth; to be sure, there is in every child a divine spark. There is in every child the capacity for truth and beauty. Indeed, so far as we can tell, every child is hard-wired for language. But this is an incomplete list of the child's potential. It is at best fatuous, at worst dangerous, to ignore the other side of the ledger.

Children - and the adults they become - have the potential for dreadful behavior as well as good. …

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