Books to read: Jefferson and American virtues (3)

February 20, 2005

The ideas of Thomas Jefferson, now transformed into the moral ideals of most Americans, have helped to open an immense sphere of freedom for the individual against the power of the state.  But freedom, as Jefferson clearly understood, isn’t an unmixed blessing.  Human predators can use it as a cover to exploit the weak and the poor.  Citizens free to indulge their desires can become corrupted by a love of sensual pleasure.  The solution, for Jefferson, was to identify “the pursuit of happiness” with the attainment of virtue, and to predicate the survival of freedom and equality on the “spirited” character of the American people, rather than on laws or institutions.

That makes the moral education of our children the most crucial element in the preservation of freedom.

This is my third post on Jean Yarbrough’s excellent American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson and the Character of a Free People.  Consider it a personal reflection on the relationship between education, morality, and freedom.

Today, American education is predominantly about absorbing facts and theoretical models.  Because we live in a pluralist society, the matter of good and evil, a sure-fire source of controversy, is pushed to the background.  Still, objective knowledge isn’t to be sneezed at.  The ignorant, in many ways, become dependent on the learned; it follows that the independent spirit required of every American citizen must be based, in part, on solid book learning.

Jefferson accepted this linkage, and wished to “illuminate, as far as is practicable, the minds of the people,” to prevent their “degeneracy.”  He promoted universal education, though with mixed success.

Yet education in facts and theories, while necessary, is insufficient to achieve independence of spirit.  The denizens of Louis XVI’s court were exquisitely educated, but servile toward the state.  Knowledge of the facts must serve knowledge of right action, which we in turn must be willing to embrace and pursue.  That is the realm of moral education.

Can right action be taught?  The question is an old one – Plato discussed it at length in his dialogues, particularly the Gorgias and the Protagoras.  If we exclude religion, as Jefferson did, from the discussion, only two possible answers obtain.  One is that morality is an objective factor in the world, and can be discovered, like the motion of the planets or the circulation of the blood, by the exercise of reason.

Rationalist doctrines  have dominated Greek and Western moral philosophy from Socrates’ day until our own.  At an everyday level, too, most of us assume we can reason our way to right action.  Because the ability to reason is unevenly distributed in the human race, this approach invariably tends toward elitism and the rule of philosopher kings.

The second answer maintains that morality is inherent to human nature:  that we share equally of a moral sense that can be “trained” to right action by means of repetition and habit.  This approach is subversive to merely intellectual authority.  It maintains that a car mechanic or a garbage collector can have a more refined appreciation of good and evil than a college professor.  The main elements are a shared biology and a shared moral history, both accessible to every citizen.  Historically, a tiny but articulate group has pushed this idea, beginning with the Greek sophist Protagoras, progressing through David Hume and the philosophers of the Scottish School in Jefferson’s time, all the way to the pragmatist William James at the turn of the twentieth century.

Jefferson belonged to this second group.  He wished to build character on the common foundation of the moral sense.  And I should say here, as I have before, that in this view Jefferson is supported by the latest cognitive research.  Almost certainly, good and evil are not objective entities, like the table of elements, but rather feelings rooted in our biological well-being and habits ingrained by the moral history of our country.

Moral education consists of the acquisition by children of just those habits that promote virtue.  The moral sense, as Yarbrough notes, is not enough:

When Jefferson discusses the moral sense he tends, quite properly, to focus on those moral sentiments that all human beings are innately equipped to receive.  But these sentiments do not spontaneously result in virtuous actions; they require a long process of development and habituation before they produce the steady inclination to virtue that is called character.  These habits include the proper dispositions toward learning, citizenship, and work.

What can we usefully say about this “long process of development and habituation” whereby children acquire the characters of free men and women?  Let me offer three brief observations and one warning.

First, good habits are acquired by doing – not thinking, talking, or reading.  “By doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust,” wrote  Aristotle,” and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.”

We must place kids in situations where they are allowed to work as groups of equals; we must find ways to give them real responsibility, so they can grow accustomed to doing right when they can do otherwise.  American public schools are actually pretty smart in this regard, doing a much better job of stressing active participation, doing things, than European schools.

Second, our moral history and traditions acquire tremendous importance, because they provide the standards kids will be asked to meet, the examples they should emulate.  Internalizing the great moral documents of our history – short list:  the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Washington’s farewell address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and second inaugural, much of Emerson and Thoreau, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – should be mandatory.

But that is only a first step.  Moral traditions aren’t theoretical propositions to be debated or disproved.  They must be embodied.  Character can only be embodied.  Morality is learned by doing, but also by the example of what others have done.  In this, the part played by parents is indispensable.  They can skip the preaching, and they can explain only so much.  But they must embody the virtues they wish their kids to attain.  The same is true, to a decreasing degree, of extended family, teachers, and neighbors.  They are the actors on the moral stage from whom kids take their cue.  In addition, schools must inculcate those virtues accepted by everyone in a pluralist society:  honesty, courage, benevolence and tolerance toward others.

It’s doubtful movie stars or NFL quarterbacks can be “role models” to anyone but their own children.  On the other hand, I do think art and literature and even music have some influence over behavior, because in a mysterious way the arts can embody most powerfully, and promote most persuasively, the virtues or the vices of a society.

Third, control of a child’s moral education must remain with parents and neighbors, and to some degree with the local authorities – never the Federal Government.  Why should that be the case?  Parents and neighbors, being close at hand, will profit in many ways from the development of a solid citizen.  The benefit to the Federal Government is much more remote; it may reasonably discover a greater advantage in politicizing the process, to appease some particular constituency.

Here Jefferson’s ideas are instructive.  He believed elementary schools should be run by parents.  No government authority, in his view, could be trusted with this duty.  Perversely, he made the case for this lack of trust with his curriculum for the new University of Virginia, which closely adhered to the ideological program of the Republican Party, and proscribed the study of errant thinkers such as Hume and Hobbes.  “Such intellectual intolerance,” Yarbrough writes, “does no honor to the cause Jefferson purports to defend.”

The question may arise:  if morality isn’t an objective entity, is each individual then entitled to his own subjective vision of good and evil?  But individuals live with others in a community, and are raised by parents according to the community’s sense of good and evil, and are constantly pointed to moral exemplars and to decisive historical moments and documents that embody and explain that good and evil.

A moral tradition is an objective standard, to which all can appeal.  History and biology place shared boundaries around tolerable behavior.  We may, for example, consider any number of ideas to reduce unemployment, but we can be sure that the reinstitution of slavery won’t be one of them.

Rationalist thinkers will quarrel with all this.  They seek higher truths, and dismiss the community’s understanding of good and evil as based on mere opinion and therefore false.  So here is my warning.  The practical result of the rationalist critique is the devaluation of public opinion, of convention, and ultimately of the liberal democratic tradition.  Those who seek to protect morality by elevating it to a higher plane must take care that, in the attempt, they don’t undermine the legitimacy of the only moral authority all of us share in common.

COMMENT: Adam asks:  Do you think that elementary schools should be run by the community, not even the local government?

Good God no.  That was Jefferson’s idea.  Mine is that control of schooling should be retained by parents, for example through the PTA, and by county authorities, not by a distant Federal Government.  It’s entirely a non-innovative notion.  I am saying we should stay as we are, rather than cede the power to design the curriculum to Washington.