Where Civility Begins
IF AMERICA is to be civilized in the twenty-first century, it must begin by civilizing its children, teaching them about the necessary balance between instinct and desire, on the one hand, and doing what is morally required, on the other. How do we do this? When I think about how the elements of good character are transmitted from one generation to the next, I like to borrow an old metaphor--the model of the three-legged stool. The three legs are the home, the school, and the place of worship. If all three institutions work together, mutually reinforcing the moral understandings that the others are teaching, then the children are likely to learn what they should. If any one of them fails--if even one of the legs should break--then the task is much harder, and perhaps impossible. The metaphorical stool topples.
Nowadays the model may seem outdated. Many adults (including, sadly, many parents) do not feel comfortable teaching children that some choices are right and others wrong; many more adults simply do not think they have the time. The nation's houses of worship, as we have seen, preach less and less about right and wrong. As for the schools, despite the introduction of a handful of curricula aimed at "character education," too few teachers seem to want to take on the task, and too many parents seem to want to dump the entire project of teaching good character on the schools. But if the work of teaching children what is right goes forward, it must begin--as so many good things do--with the family.
Family is the most important institution in America. Just about everything of lasting value starts there. In particular, the family is