Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong by William Kilpatrick

Since I'm making it a duty of mine to read all the books recommended by the Hillsdale Bookstore, I picked up Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong by William Kilpatrick. Obviously the title is modeled after Why Johnny Can't Read, the best seller in the 1950s that woke America to the dangers of an educational system failing its students. This book is a similar harbinger. While it was written in 1992, it remains every bit as relevant today as it was then. In fact, I think we are seeing even more of what he predicted as time as gone on. 

After recounting some particularly horrific accounts of kids gone wild, he acknowledges the natural inclination to call for the teaching of morality in schools. "To someone with that idea it might come as a surprise to learn that moral values courses have been in the schools for over twenty-five years. In fact, more attention and research have been devoted to moral education in recent years than at any time in our history. Unfortunately, these attempts at moral education have been a resounding failure." (p. 15) And this, 25 years ago!

Character education switched to the decision-making model, asking students to reflect on their self-discovered values rather than learning the ones "handed down by adults." (p. 16) This closely follows the child-centered, individualist mantra which consumes educational theory. This has failed on every level to produce citizens with a common store of values, rather leading to subjective ideas of right and wrong. "In these curriculums a lot of time and energy are spent exchanging opinions and exploring feelings, but practically no time is spent providing moral guidance or forming character. The virtues are not explained or discussed, no models of good behavior are provided, no reason is given why a boy or girl should want to be good in the first place. In short, students are given nothing to live by or look up to." (p. 22) It's no wonder this type of moral education has failed. 

Character education programs began with drug education programs. It soon became apparent that bull sessions by students discussing the morality of drug use actually led to more experimentation, not less. The idea was based on a therapeutic approach, in which the students explored their feelings in a non-judgmental environment. At the same time, the "self-esteem" movement was gaining traction that sought to affirm students and validate their choices. By 1988, the U.S. Department of Education had seen the bad outcomes of this type of curriculum and encouraged schools to steer clear of such pedagogy. It recommended adult authorities clearly communicating right and wrong. How novel. In fact, the schools that successfully decreased drug usage were those that took a hard line against drugs, advocating for drug-free schools. 

Next up for the "moralists" was sex education. The curriculum introduced on this topic followed closely with the drug education. It was values-free, barely acknowledged abstinence, and focused on "responsibility." This too, caused an uptick in sexual activity, with the expected disastrous results. Its relativistic framework meant that there are no binding rules. Schools became just as sex-saturated as the culture. Although there seems to be a correlation between academic achievement and abstinence, we continued to teach children, that as long as they think its OK, its OK

These ideas grew out of the 60s and the cultural decay seen running rampant. Educators decided that culture and cultural values were not worth preserving. Rather, the students needed to find their own way to their values. Students would be given "decision-making" skills, not indoctrination. So highly esoteric situation were presented to students to get them to try to clarify their own values. "After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students [would] conclude that right and wrong are anybody's guess." (p. 85) Rather than encourage students to exercise time-honored virtues in normal circumstances, children were being asked to make highly nuanced determinations based on their as-yet-unknown hierarchy of values. Educators were making the highly dubious assumption that students already highly honored those principles generations past worked hard to inculcate. Kilpatrick likens it to the absurd proposition that we teach history to children by asking them to evaluate historically moral ambiguities like the Founders' ownership of slaves without teaching them the of their great achievements. To our shame, this is exactly what we are doing. Ironically, the only value this kind of education engendered was tolerance. But tolerance is an anti-value. It definitionally holds that there are no empirical values that citizens should embrace. We are seeing the ramifications of tolerance uber alles affecting the population today. The only "sin" in our culture today is intolerance. 

All throughout human history, the formation of character in the next generation has been a central concern. Ronald Reagan famously said we do not pass on freedom through the blood stream and that we are one generation away from losing it. "An effective moral education would be devoted to encouraging habits of honesty, helpfulness, and self-control until such behaviors become second nature." (p. 97) Children would be asked to respond automatically through the force of habit in a moral way to tempting situations. For a culture that ostensibly values freedom of choice and liberty, we seem paradoxically addicted to substances and behaviors that curb that very freedom we claim to hold dear. "None of this would have surprised Aristotle. A culture that neglects to cultivate good habits, he would have observed, will soon find itself the prisoner of bad habits." (p. 98) As rationalism and Romanticism came to influence Western Civilization, rather than counter-balance each other, they both "prized individual autonomy over any other goal." (p. 110) So today, while it seems we swing back and forth between these two extremes, we actually need to "move toward a wholly different mode of understanding human action." (p. 111)

In many ways, the thesis of  this book perfectly mirrors what those like E.D. Hirsch have been saying about the failures of education in general. In fact, just as Hirsch advocates for cultural literacy, Kilpatrick promotes a moral literacy, a set of values held in common by Americans. There used to be a common set of ideals and examples designed to socialize the youth into the values the larger society held dear. Today, few would recognize the stories that pervaded schoolhouses across the nation. Just as they are doing in education, so also in morality, the multi-culturalists decry a common core that they claim neglects the contributions of various disenfranchised groups. Ironically the traditional Western value system is actually the best way to honor what is good and should be emulated in other cultures. Western values provide the yardstick against which people can judge right and wrong. Without that ability to measure, students are left "adrift on a sea of relativism with no compass." (p. 128)

The primary way we taught the virtues in the past was through stories. Yet Enlightenment theorists today, decry moral stories as the stuff of ignorant and illiterate farmers. Today we should be able to rationalize our way to good values avoiding the harmful superstitions and narrow prejudices embedded in ancient stories. Yet a moral framework is often the result of a transformation of vision. We "see" things in a new light. Stories are a perfect way to get young students to "see" the need for particular values. "Moral principles also take on a reality in stories that they lack in purely logical form. Stories restrain our tendency to indulge in abstract speculation about ethics." (p. 137) Moral stories are the opposite of the values clarification curriculum promulgated by the education establishment. But stories do something "bull sessions" cannot. They make implicit assumptions about values that should be embraced. They make people and consequences real and concrete. Stories have the power to implicitly say, "Act like this. Don't act like that." They are a marvelous, time-honored way to morally socialize our youth. We have abandoned them to our peril. "Once we lose sight of the human face of principle, the way is clear for attacking the principles themselves as merely situational or relative. The final stage of the progression is moral nihilism and the appeal to raw self-interest." (p. 143)

As we have rejected definitive moral values to be inculcated in the youth, we have opted for the idea that our job is to reform society instead. The message is, "You are great. Society stinks." This relieves the next generation of the hard work of building their own character through habit and rather focus their attention on societal ills. Morality then becomes all about politics and a giant power struggle. This creates the endless need for victims of problems it is society's responsibility to alleviate. Ironically, if moral standards are discarded, then societal problems actually increase. The modern solution to moral issues is creating the disease. The abandonment of traditional Western Values impacts the most vulnerable in society by unmooring them from the lodestones that have generally bound society together.

Kilpatrick wades into even more controversial waters in his discussion of  beauty. We've all been taught that beauty is highly subjective and only exists "in the eye of the beholder." Yet Kilpatrick argues for an objective standard of beauty that has been used over the millennia to civilize generations of young people. It is not even the lyrics of some forms of music that he condemns, but the modern stuff of angry gyrations. He believes the harmonies inherent in good music produce harmonies of the soul and of society and holds little hope for moral renewal as long as our standards for beauty are non-existent.

Returning to his love of story as central to the human condition, Kilpatrick states, "The desire to be a hero, so common to children and adults, is part of a larger wish: the hope that one's life can be like a story. It is such a basic wish that we hardly reflect on it. For the most part we simply assume that our lives will make sense." (p. 191) Therefore, good moral stories "can give us not only a reason for living but also a reason for living well." (p. 196) "When the narrative sense is absent from individual lives, society also suffers an impoverishment.... Both for society and the individual the loss of story and history amounts to a loss of memory. We become like amnesiacs, not knowing where we are going, because we don't know where we have come from, and -- for the same reason  -- susceptible to the most superficial attractions." (p. 205)

Rather than outgrowing moral stories, our society is in need of them more than ever. Unfortunately our society is at a crossroads. It can choose stories that promulgate "moral imagination," the idea of how things ought to be, or "idyllic imagination," the idea of how things can never be - a utopian ideal. "At best the idyllic imagination provides a respite from the serious business of living, but for the serious business itself -- the call of duty, the necessity of hard work, the taming of selfish and violent emotions, facing sickness and death -- the idyllic imagination is inadequate. The serious business of life requires a more serious imagination; the moral imagination." (p. 209) While, with so many detrimental cultural components, this one was ushered in in the 60s with the hippies and love children, the idyllic imagination has a dark side. Told the universe can be a Utopian place, young people are hit hard with reality. Not given the tools to cope when life is hard, they become angry at the betrayal. This amorphous anger manifests itself in myriad destructive tendencies. I believe it's why we are seeing the acting out violently on college campuses today as students have their precious idyllic vision of the universe punctured by those who offer an alternative viewpoint. "The idyllic and utopian visions mistakenly imagine that virtue and character can be safely left out of the picture. But when that happens, vice only looms larger. Moreover, when we ignore or minimize the tragic limitations of life, tragedy is only multiplied." (p. 223) In trying to naively better society, we have instead sowed the seeds of its destruction by ignoring the wisdom of the ages.

His solution to all this is schools that are not morally ambivalent, but boldly champion the moral imagination and "embody the kind of character they hope to instill." (p. 224) Since all problems are at heart, a moral problem, Kilpatrick believes true moral education is the only path forward. Unfortunately it seems like a lot of hard work. Both teachers and students have a self-interest in neglecting this component of education. It can be daunting to try to figure out what values we actually want to teach. It can certainly be controversial. He recommends starting with the four cardinal virtues  - prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. He would probably add in patience for good measure. In addition to the schools, parents can work to produce disciplined children. Learn to say, "No." Forget trying to "understand" the child and validate his voice. Rather train up a child in the way that they should go.

At the end of the book, Kilpatrick recommends a reading list that will help with the moral training:

Picture books, story books, beginning readers: 
Aesop's Fables. Fritz Kredel, Grosset
Beauty and the Beast. Jan Brett
Betsy-Tacy. Lovelace
Book of Greek Myths. d'Aulaire
The Children's Bible in 365 Stories. Batchelor
The Children's Homer; The adventures of Odysseus and the tale of Troy. Padriac Olum
Clancy's Coat. Bunting
The Clown of God. dePaola
Dogger. Hughes
The Door in the Wall. De Angeli
The Emperor and the Kite. Yolen
How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story. Bunting
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Joffe
John Henry, An American Legend. Keats
Just Enough is Plenty; A Hanukkah Tale. Goldin
Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie. Roop
The Little Engine That Could. Piper
Little House in the Big Woods. Wilder
The Little Match Girl. Andersen
Magical Hands. Barker
Marta and the Nazis. Cavanah
A Tale of Three WishesSinger
Thy Friend, Obadiah. Turkle
Waiting for Hannah. Russo
When I was Young in the Mountains. Rylant
Yonder. Johnston

Middle Readers:
All-of-a-Kind Family. Taylor
Black Beauty. Sewell
Blue Willow. Gates
Caddie Woodlawn. Brink
The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis
Cracker Jackson. Byars
Dear Mr. Henshaw. Cleary
A Dog on Barkham Street. Stolz
A Dog So Small. Pearce.
The 18th Emergency Byars
Five Children and It. Bland
Gaffer Samson's Luck. Walsh
A Girl Called Al. Greene
Good Morning, Miss Dove. Patton
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. Petry
Heather and Broom: Tales of the Scottish Highlands. Alger
Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland. Alger
Heidi. Spyri
The House of Sixty Fathers. DeJong
The Hundred Dresses. Estes
Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain. Burch
The Indian in the Cupboard. Banks
Island of the Blue Dolphins. O'Dell
Johnny Tremain. Forbes
Ladder of Angels. L'Engle
Lassie come Home. Knight
A Little Princess. Burnett
Pagan the Black. Benedict
Plain Girl. Sorenson
Pollyanna. Porter
The Potlatch Family. Lampman
The Rabbi's Girls. Hurwitz
The Railway Children. Bland
Roll of Thunder, Hear  My Cry. Taylor
The Sign of the Beaver. Speare
Snow Treasure. McSwigan
Sounder. Armstrong
The Taize Picture Bible. de Saussure
Thank You, Jackie Robinson. Cohen
Tuck Everlasting. Babbitt
Understood Betsy. Canfield
Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story About Sojourner Truth. Ferris
The Wheel on the School. DeJong
The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Speare

Older Readers:
Abraham Lincoln: From Log Cabin to White House. North
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain
April Morning. Fast
Building Blocks. Voigt
Call of the Wild. London
Captains Courageous. Kipling
Cheaper by the Dozen. Gilbreth
A Child's History of England. Dickens
The Chosen. Potok
The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas
David Copperfield. Dickens
Diary of a Young Girl. Frank
Drums Along the Mohawk. Edmonds
The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile. Hautzig
Great Expectations. Dickens
The Great Gilly Hopkins. Paterson
Gulliver's Travels. Swift
Hard Times. Dickens
The Hero and the Crown. McKinley
Hobberdy Dick. Briggs.
The Hobbit. Tolkien
Kidnapped. Stevenson
Knight's Fee. Sutcliff
Little Women. Alcott
Moby-Dick. Melville
Narrative of the Life of  Frederick Douglas. Douglass
1984. Orwell
The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway
Old Yeller. Gipson
Oliver Twist. Dickens
Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story." Aurandt
The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster
The Red Badge of Courage. Crane
Rifles for Watie. Keith
Robinson Crusoe. Defoe
The Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy
Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury
The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength. Lewis
Stories for Children. Singer
A Study in Scarlet. Doyle
The Sign of the Four. Doyle
The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle
A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens
This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War. Catton
Typhoon. Conrad
Warrior Scarlet. Sutcliff
Watership Down. Adams

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