Educational fads come and go, but some stay long enough to do substantial harm. The education profession was a significant casualty of the “Cultural revolution of the 1960’s and was vulnerable to untried educational experimentation. Seriously demoralized, it became ashamed of traditional cultural values and refused to transmit them. As was the case with stay-at-home mothers, whose essential teaching and nurturing functions were devalued and denigrated by a self-appointed, undiscerning, intellectual elite.

In a period of emotional crisis and uncertainty, many educators became dissatisfied with their traditional role of acting in loco parentis, in place of the parent. Many sought greater self-validation and meaning, plus economic security, by gaining more direct control over the development of the child and creation of new citizens, new social creatures possessed of social values and rights beyond parental influence and control.

The disintegration of the traditional teaching profession provided an opening for the social engineers to experiment with the lives of the young in an attempt to alter fundamentally, the way human beings see the world. In the process they have undermined and endangered the spiritual dimension and meaning of human life. Traditional character education which, while not perfect, does encourage virtuous behavior, was rejected. It was replaced by the “decision making” model of moral education, also known as the “moral reasoning” or “dilemma method” or Values Clarification, “which became the standard model of moral education. The resulting impact on society promises to be far more serious than the decline in student academic achievement scores.

‘Failed philosophy’

Despite high rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion, substance abuse, and violence, a return to character based moral education is inconsistent with the prevailing ideologies. The same educators and experts who cling to failed pedagogical methods to teach reading and mathematic seem to want desperately to hold on to this failed philosophy of moral education.

Classical, traditional character education is an overall comprehensive form of moral education, more like more like an initiation into life than a debate on life issues, which is based on the recognition that goodness is not an easy project. It is not, for the most part, an intellectual project. In most cases, the individual knows what to do, but lacks the will and the determination to do it. Plato, who devoted much of his writing to the subject of moral education, believed that children should be brought up in such a way that they would fall in love with virtue. The way to counter the lack of will and determination is through of good habits. An effective moral education would be devoted to encouraging habits of honesty, helpfulness, and self-control until such behaviors become second nature.

The idea that the parent is the first and foremost teacher of his child was once taken seriously by society and teachers realized that they acted for the parents as trustees of the child’s education. Children were not exposed to sharply conflicting moralities before they learned basic morality and there was a moral continuity between the home and the school. Today, the principle of the priority of parental values over teacher values is attacked as discriminatory and old fashioned because it does not give the education establishment enough power and status. Emotional and moral confusion often results in which the child becomes the innocent victim, forced to choose between the traditional values of the home and more artificial values of the school.

In “modern” education, the ideals and decency of the past, have succumbed to the realities of crude self-interest. In his book “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong”, William Kilpatrick of Boston College, writes that the attitude of many educators is that parents are hopelessly out of date. Teachers and administrators have become corrupted in deceptive attempts to conceal curriculum content from parents. Education theorists express disdain for concepts such as virtue, character, and good example, which parents value, and they dismiss past culture and history as being irrelevant to the search for values. They have created an education system based on deception with a de facto policy of withholding from children the conviction that life makes sense which is the greatest incentive to moral behavior.

Education policies which prevent children from learning the larger stories of life which give meaning to existence deprive children of moral context and moral energy and condemn them to lives of socio-psycho pathology which threatens the survival of civilized society.

(Michael Farrell is a professor at the University of Quebec and an occasional contributor to the Interim.)