Moral Development and American Education

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In an essay written in 1940, notable educator and philosopher Mortimer J. Adler addressed the question, “Can anything be done about American education?”

Though his answer has swayed more towards an “I don’t think so,” he nonetheless takes note of several causes regarding the education and intellectual aptitude of his generation. As he writes: “The real trouble is that our college students and recent graduates do not take any moral issues seriously, whether about their personal affairs or the economic and political problems of the nation. Their only principle is that there are no moral principles at all, their only slogan that all statements of policy, all appeals to standards, are nothing but slogans, and hence frauds and deceptions.”

Adler argues that one of the great failures of nineteenth century education is the institutional acceptance of moral relativism, skepticism about moral values among college students. Particularly, “Our college students today, like Thrasymachus of old, regard justice as nothing but the will of the stronger; but unlike the ancient sophist, they cannot make the point as clearly or defend it as well.”

Stated less philosophically, young men do feel as though Hitler was a bad man, but they can’t quite articulate that personal disagreement without repeating such phrases like civil liberties or human rights—“the meaning of which they cannot explain.” Nearly forty years later, philosopher and popular academician Allan Bloom, in his eminent work The Closing of the American Mind, would argue a thesis of a similar kind. He suggests that the “relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.”

Interestingly, Bloom echoes a similar consequence: “The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something which they have been indoctrinated. . . What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others?” What I think is considerable about Bloom’s observation is that educational systems cannot be understood without their moral outlooks in mind. Of course, the outlook here essentially flourishes a moral virtue within students towards that of “openness”; where, at one time, natural rights once made the distinctions of religion, race, gender, etc. a dimly lit qualification of a person, “[t]he recent education of openness has rejected all that.” The question, I think, then points to the importance of values as well as moral instruction (among other qualities) in today’s American education system.

Of course, this isn’t so much about recognizing the benefits of preserving a certain tradition, but rather is an attempt to show the ever present decadence in American education and how examining the causes and effects of such a decadence can be seen through a brief analysis of our own intellectual tradition.

Now, by this claim I mean something very particular. We are often told that America is in many ways anti-intellectualistic. In the words of Chris Hedges, “We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image.” Looking for ways in which this kind of atmosphere might have emerged in the past half-century doesn’t go without a long and extensive list attempting to show why.

However, as Adler suggests, “We have not yet solved the educational problem that confronts us. Nor have we yet tuned our efforts toward trying to solve it.

Most Americans do not know the shape this problem takes. . . Yet the problem is one of the most serious that our society faces.” What Adler goes on to admit is that even if we were to survey historically educational thought, in order to find answers to the problems we are currently facing, they would only “intensify our sense of difficulty of the problem we face.”

It is not my intention to outline and examine possible solutions or analyze current problems of the education system, but rather to state a brief aim of education that would be relevant to the conditions I have discussed throughout this article.

For one, I take Adler’s view that the “aim of education is to cultivate the individual’s capacities for mental growth and moral development; to help him acquire the intellectual and moral virtues requisite for a good human life, spent publicly in political action or service and privately in a noble or honorable use of free time for the creative pursuits of leisure, among which continued learning throughout life is preeminent.”

Unfortunately, I do often see the conversation of moral character and development neglected in the context of education. If you remember from Plato’s ideal city, the scheme was that character training should always precede intellectual training. According to Plato’s system, as referenced by R.M. Hare, “we should first implant, by entirely non-intellectual training, right opinion leading to right habits and dispositions, and only then will it be safe, at a much later age, to introduce people to philosophy, in order that they may acquire knowledge of the Good which determines which opinions are right.” Hence, it was Plato’s intention in his educational system that character formation will be succeeded by a development of the intellect.

Moreover, Theodor Adorno in his 1967 essay “Education After Auschwitz, as quoted by Chris Hedges, argued that “education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Schools must teach more than skills; they must teach values and the underlying social mechanisms of political forms so that such atrocities like Auschwitz would never happen again.

Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer. Reforming Education. 1988. New York, NY: Westview Press.

Bloom, Allan. Closing of the American Mind. 2012. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Hare, R.M. “Education and the good life.” Greek Philosophers. 1996. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion. 2009. New York, NY: Nation Books.