Our educated elites’ ethical illiteracy problem
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.”