Our ed­u­cated elites’ eth­i­cal il­lit­er­acy prob­lem

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

To­day’s topic is the elite that runs the coun­try, drawn over­whelm­ingly from among the top 10 per­cent in in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity, dubbed “the gifted,” and their ed­u­ca­tion in virtue and the Good.

As some­one who has spent a fair amount of time on cam­puses over the past 20 years, I am happy to re­port that to­day’s gifted stu­dents are, for the most part, nice. They are not racist, sex­ist or ho­mo­pho­bic. They want to be gen­er­ous to those who are less for­tu­nate. They say please and thank you.

But be­ing nice is not be­ing good. Liv­ing a nice life is not liv­ing a good life. One of the spe­cial tasks in the ed­u­ca­tion of the gifted is to steep them in the study of what good means — good as it ap­plies to virtue, and the good as a way of think­ing about how to live a hu­man life.

Virtue by what def­i­ni­tion? It sounds like a daunt­ing ques­tion. It is not. The great eth­i­cal and re­li­gious sys­tems of the world are in such re­mark­able agree­ment on the core is­sues that, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, any of them will do. Take the world’s two most in­flu­en­tial sec­u­lar eth­i­cal sys­tems, Aris­totelian and Con­fu­cian, as ex­am­ples. If your chil­dren grow up to be coura­geous, tem­per­ate, able to think clearly about the con­se­quences of their ac­tions, to be con­cerned with the wel­fare of oth­ers, with a sense of obli­ga­tion to set a good ex­am­ple for oth­ers in their own be­hav­ior and to ac­cord to oth­ers their right­ful due — all of which are cen­tral tenets of both eth­i­cal sys­tems — do you re­ally care whether they were raised to be good Aris­totelians or good Con­fu­cians?

The prob­lem is when they are raised in no tra­di­tion at all, and in­stead im­bibe the reign­ing eth­i­cal doc­trine of con­tem­po­rary academia, non­judg­men­tal­ism. If they were taught merely to be tol­er­ant, fine. But non­judg­men­tal­ism goes much fur­ther, pro­claim­ing that it is a sin to make judg­ments about the rel­a­tive merit of dif­fer­ent ways of liv­ing. Non­judg­men­tal­ism is the in­verse of rigor in think­ing about virtue — a task that, above all else, re­quires the for­ma­tion of con­sid­ered judg­ments.

For think­ing about the Good and its in­ti­mately re­lated ques­tion “What does it mean to live a good hu­man life?” virtue is not enough. It is also nec­es­sary to think about what is the ex­cel­lence pe­cu­liar to hu­man be­ings that we should strive to re­al­ize, and what is the na­ture of hu­man hap­pi­ness.

Here, the great tra­di­tions di­verge, and I am a mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist. Each of the great tra­di­tions has iden­ti­fied truths about the hu­man con­di­tion that the other tra­di­tions have not un­der­stood as deeply. Again, the prob­lem arises when ed­u­ca­tion teaches none of th­ese un­der­stand­ings of the Good. Ask to­day’s col­lege stu­dents — or col­lege grad­u­ates from the last sev­eral decades — their un­der­stand­ing of the Good, and you may get an an­swer from some of the re­li­giously com­mit­ted stu­dents. From most, you will get a blank stare.

The void in teach­ing about virtue and the Good ex­tends through­out the cur­ricu­lum from sec­u­lar kinder­gartens through sec­u­lar colleges, and it af­fects chil­dren at all lev­els of aca­demic abil­ity, not just the gifted. That void should be filled through­out the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem. I am none­the­less dis­cussing the prob­lem in terms of its ef­fects on the gifted be­cause of the elite’s spe­cial in­flu­ence on the cul­tural mi­lieu.

What we see on tele­vi­sion and in films, hear in our mu­sic, read in our news­pa­pers and books, is all pro­duced by mem­bers of the elite. The de­press­ing re­al­ity is that hardly any of the peo­ple who have such enor­mous in­flu­ence on our cul­ture have ever been in a school that made sure they thought hard about th­ese is­sues. By “think­ing hard” I don’t mean a one-se­mes­ter course in phi­los­o­phy, but a rig­or­ous core cur­ricu­lum that de­mands fa­mil­iar­ity in depth with the great­est writ­ings — philo­soph­i­cal, lit­er­ary, and his­tor­i­cal — bear­ing on is­sues of virtue and the Good.

Only a hand­ful of colleges im­pose such a cur­ricu­lum. In the colleges that don’t, only a frac­tion of gifted stu­dents vol­un­tar­ily se­lect more than a few of the cour­ses in­cluded in that cur­ricu­lum. Many se­lect none. The re­sult is that most of the grad­u­ates of to­day’s colleges are eth­i­cally il­lit­er­ate. They don’t even re­al­ize that there is any­thing to learn.

Since we are start­ing from scratch, our am­bi­tions should be mod­est. It would con­sti­tute a ma­jor step for­ward if the typ­i­cal gifted stu­dent emerged from col­lege with a rea­soned ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just two things: First, be­ing vir­tu­ous is hard. It is not enough to be­have pleas­antly to­ward oth­ers. Be­hav­ing in ways that con­duce to the good ends you seek takes mea­sured thought­ful­ness. When the de­ci­sions that mem­bers of the elite make af­fect large num­bers of peo­ple, they must draw upon prin­ci­ples of right be­hav­ior and prin­ci­ples of hu­man flour­ish­ing. It is folly to try to de­rive those prin­ci­ples without hav­ing drawn upon the wis­est who have come be­fore us.

Sec­ond, seek­ing the Good for one­self is both im­por­tant and fea­si­ble. A dif­fer­ence ex­ists be­tween try­ing to do good for oth­ers and seek­ing the Good for one­self. The gifted should leave col­lege aware that seek­ing the Good is some­thing that can be ad­dressed in sec­u­lar as well as re­li­gious terms, that think­ing about it is cru­cial to their fu­ture hap­pi­ness — and that peo­ple even smarter than they are have writ­ten help­fully about it in the past.

There are no canned ways to teach wis­dom. Colleges can only en­cour­age it. But they can do that much, and they have ab­di­cated that func­tion for decades. The re­sult is moral va­pid­ity that suf­fuses the cul­ture. The phi­los­o­phy of “do your own thing” be­queathed to sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions by the Baby Boomers is Exhibit #1. We can­not af­ford to let the next gen­er­a­tion of the elite sub­sist on such mea­ger nour­ish­ment.

Charles Mur­ray is the au­thor of “Real Ed­u­ca­tion: Four Sim­ple Truths for Bring­ing Amer­ica’s Schools Back to Re­al­ity.”

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