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Ethics In Schools
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Ethics In The Schools

( Originally Published 1913 )

Within a few years a strong demand has arisen for ethical teaching in the schools. Teachers themselves have become interested, and wherever they are gathered the question, "What shall this teaching be?" is eagerly discussed. The educational journals are full of it. Within a year there have been published seven books on the subject. Several of them it would be hardly an exaggeration to say all-are books of marked excellence. Seldom does so large a percentage of books in a single year, in a single country, and on a single subject, reach so high a level of merit. I shall not criticize them, however, nor even engage in the popular discussion of which they form a part. That discussion concerns itself chiefly with the methods by which ethics may be taught. I wish to go behind this controversy and to raise the previous question whether ethics should be taught to boys and girls at all.

Evidently there are strong reasons why it should be. Always and everywhere it is important that men should be good. To be a good man! It is more than half the fulfill ment of life. Better to miss fame, wealth, learning, than to miss righteousness. And in America, too, we must demand not the mere trifle that men shall be good for their own sakes, but good in order that the life of the state may be preserved. A widespread righteousness is in a republic a matter of necessity. Where all rule all, each man who falls into evil courses infects his neighbour, corrupting the law, and corrupting still more its enforcement. The question of manufacturing moral men becomes, accordingly, in a democracy, urgent to a degree unknown in a country where but a few selected persons guide the state.

There is also special urgency at the present time. The ancient and accredited means of training youth in goodness, are becoming, I will not say broken, but enfeebled and dis trusted. Hitherto a large part of the moral instruction of mankind has been superintended by the clergy. In every civilized state the expensive machinery of the Church has been set up and placed in the hands of men of dignity, because it has been believed that by no other engine can we so effectively render people upright. I still believe this, and I am pretty confident that a good many years will pass before we shall dispense with the ennobling services of our ministers. And yet it is plain that much of the work which formerly was exclusively theirs, is so no longer. Much of it is performed by books, newspapers, and facilitated human intercourse. Ministers do not now speak with their old authority; they speak merely as other men speak; and we are all asking whether in the immense readjustment of faith now going on something of their peculiar power of moral as well as of intellectual guidance may not slip away.

The home, too, which has hitherto been the fundamental agency for fostering morality in the young, is just now in sore need of repair. We can no longer depend upon it alone for moral guardianship. It must be supplemented, possibly reconstructed. New dangers to it have arisen. In the complex civilization of city life, in the huge influx of untutored foreigners, in the substitution of the apartment for the house, in the greater ease of divorce, in the larger freedom now given to children, to women, in the breaking down of class distinctions and the readier accessibility of man to man, there are perils for boy and girl which did not exist before. And while these changes in the outward form of domestic life are advancing, certain protections against moral peril which the home formerly afforded have decayed. It would be curious to ascertain in how many families of our immediate time daily prayers are used, and to compare the number with that of those in which the holy practice was common fifty years ago. It would be interesting to know how frequently parents today converse with their children on subjects serious, pious or personal. The hurry of modern life has swept away many uplifting intimacies. Even in families which prize them most, a few minutes only can be had each day for such fortifying things. Domestic training has shrunk, while the training of haphazard companions, the training of the streets, the training of the newspapers, have acquired a potency hitherto unknown...

I have stated somewhat at length the considerations in behalf of ethical instruction in the schools because those considerations on the whole appear to me illusory. I cannot be lieve such instruction feasible. Were it so, of course it would have my eager support. But I see in it grave difficulties, difficulties imperfectly understood; and a difficulty disregarded becomes a danger, possibly a catastrophe. Let me explain in a few words where the danger lies.

Between morals and ethics there is a sharp distinction, frequently as the two words are confused. Usage, however, shows the meaning. If I call a man a man of bad morals, I evidently mean to assert that his conduct is corrupt; he does things which the majority of mankind believe he ought not to do. It is his practice I denounce, not his intellectual formulation. In the same way we speak of the petty morals of society, referring in the phrase to the small practices of mankind, the unnumbered actions which disclose good or bad principles unconsciously hidden within. It is entirely different when I call a man's ethics bad. I then declare that I do not agree with his comprehension of moral principles. His practice may be entirely correct. I do not speak of that; it is his understanding that is at fault. For ethics, as was long ago remarked, is related to morals as geometry to carpentry: the one is a science, the other its practical embodiment. In the former, consciousness is a prime factor; from the latter, it is often absent altogether.

Now what is asked of us teachers is that we invite our pupils to direct study of the principles of right conduct, that we awaken their consciousness about their modes of life, and so by degrees impart to them a science of righteousness. This is theory, ethics; not morals, practice; and in my judgment it is dangerous business, with the slenderest chance of success. Useless it is to say that the aim of such instruction need not be ethical, but moral. Whatever the ultimate aim, the procedure of instruction is necessarily scientific. It operates through intelligence, and only gets into life so far as the instructed intelligence afterwards becomes a director. This is the work of books and teachers everywhere; they discipline the knowing act, and so bring within its influence that multitude of matters which depend for excellent adjustment on clear and ordered knowledge. Such a work, however, is evidently but partial. Many matters do not take their rise in knowledge at all. Morality does not. The boy as soon as born is adopted unconsciously into some sort of moral world. While he is growing up and thinking of other things, habits of character are seizing him. By the time he comes to school he is incrusted with customs. The idea that his moral education can be fashioned by his teacher in the same way as his education in geography is fantastic. It it is only his ethical training which may now begin. The attention of such a boy may be called to habits already formed ; he may be led to dissect those habits, to pass judgment on them as right or wrong, and to inquire why and how they may be bettered. This is the only power teaching professes: it critically inquires, it awakens interest; it inspects facts, it discovers laws. And this process applied in the field of character yields ethics, the systemized knowledge of human conduct. It does not primarily yield morals, improved performance.

Nor indeed is performance likely to be improved by ethical enlightenment if, as I maintain, the whole business of selfcriticism in the child is unwholesome. By a course of ethical training a young person will, in my view, much more become demoralized than invigorated. What we ought to desire, if we would have a boy grow morally sturdy, is that introspection should not set in early and that he should not become accustomed to watch his conduct. And the reason is obvious. Much as we incline to laud our prerogative of consciousness and to assert that it is precisely what distinguishes us from our poor relations, the brutes, we still must acknowledge that consciousness has certain grave defects when exalted into the position of a guide. Large tracts of life lie altogether beyond its control, and the conduct which can be affected by it is aptespecially in the initial stages-to be rendered vague, slow, vacillating and distorted. Only instinctive action is swift, sure, and firm. For this reason we distrust the man who calculates his goodness. We find him vulgar and repellant. We are far from sure that he will keep that goodness long. If I offer to shake hands with a man with precisely that degree of warmth which I have decided it is well to express, will he willingly take my hand? A few years ago there were some nonsense verses on this subject going the rounds of the Eng-lish newspapers. They seemed to me capitally to express the morbid influence of consciousness in a complex organism. They ran somewhat as follows:

The centipede was happy, quite,
Until the toad, for fun;
Said, "Pray, which leg comes after which?"
This worked her mind to such a pitch
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

And well she might! Imagine the hundred legs steered consciously-now it is time to move this one, now to move that! The creature would never move at all, but would be as incapable of action as Hamlet himself. And are the young less complex than centipedes? Shall their little lives be suddenly turned over to a fumbling guide? Shall they not rather be stimulated to unconscious rectitude, gently led into those blind but holy habits which make goodness easy, and so be saved from the perilous perplexities of marking out their own way? So thought the sagacious Aristotle. To the crude early opinion of Socrates that virtue is knowledge, he opposed the ripened doctrine that it is practice and habit.

This, then, is the inexpungable objection to the ethical instruction of children: the end which should be sought is performance, not knowledge, and we cannot by supplying the latter, induce the former. But do not these considerations cut the ground from under practical teaching of every kind? Instruction is given in other subjects in the hope that it may finally issue in strengthened action, and I have acknowledged that as a fact this hope is repeatedly justified. Why may not a similar result appear in ethics? What puts a difference between that study and electricity, social science, or manual training? This: according to the work studied includes a creative element and is intended to give expression to a personal life, consciousness becomes an increasingly dangerous dependence. Why are there no classes and text-books for the study of deportment? Is it because manners are unimportant? No, but because they make the man, and to be of any worth must be an expression of his very nature. Conscious study would tend to distort rather than to fashion them. Their practice cannot be learned in the same way as carpentry...

And a similar pair of dangers await the young student of the laws of conduct. On the one hand, it is highly probable that he will not understand what his teacher is talking about. He may learn his lesson; he may answer questions correctly; but he will assume that these things have nothing to do with him. He becomes dulled to moral distinctions, and it is the teaching of ethics that dulls him. We see the disastrous process in full operation in a neighboring field. There are countries which have regular public instruction in religion. The argument runs that schools are established to teach what is of consequence to citizens, and religion is of more consequence than anything else. Therefore introduce it, is the conclusion. Therefore keep it out, is the sound conclusion. It lies too near the life to be announced in official propositions and still to retain a recognizable meaning. I have known a large number of German young men. I have yet to meet one whose religious nature has been deepened by his instruction in school. And the lack of influence is noticeable not merely in those who have failed in the study, but quite as much in those who have ranked highest. In neither case has the august discipline meant anything. The danger would be wider, the disaster from the benumbing influence more serious, if ethical instruction should be organized; wider, because morality underlies religion, and insensitiveness to the moral claim is more immediately and concretely destructive. Yet here, as in the case of religion, of manners, or of speech, the child will probably take to heart very little of what he said. At most he will assume that the text-book statement of the rules of righteousness represents the way in which the game of life is played by some people; but he will prefer to play it in his own way still. Young people are constructed with happy protective arrangements; they are enviously impervious. So in expounding moral principles in the schoolroom, I believe we shall touch the child in very few moral spots. Nevertheless, it becomes dulled and hardened if it listens long to sacred words untouched.

But the benumbing influence is not the gravest danger; analogies of speech suggest a graver still. If we try to teach speech too early and really succeed in fixing the child's atten tion upon its tongue, we enfeeble its power of utterance. Consciousness once awakened, the child is perpetually enquiring whether the word is the right word, and suspecting that it is not quite sufficiently right to be allowed free passage. Just so a momentous trouble appears when the moral consciousness has been too early stirred. That self-questioning spirit springs up which impels its tortured possessor to be continually fingering his motives in unwholesome preoccupation with himself. Instead of entering heartily into outward interests, the watchful little moralist is "questioning about himself whether he has been as good as he should have been, and whether a better man would not have acted otherwise." No part of us is more susceptible of morbidness than the moral sense; none demoralizes more thoroughly when morbid. The trouble, too, affects chiefly those of the finer fibre. The majority of healthy children, as has been said, harden themselves against theoretic talk, and it passes over them like the wind. Here and there a sensitive soul absorbs the poison, and sets itself seriously to work installing duty as the mainspring of its life. We all know the unwholesome result; the person from whom spontaneity is gone, who criticizes everything he does, who has lost his sense of proportion, who teases himself endlessly and teases his friends-so far as they remain his friends-about the right and wrong of each petty act. It is a disease, a moral disease, and takes the place in the spiritual life of that which the doctors are fond of calling "nervous prostration" in the physical. Few countries have been so desolated by it as New England. It is our special scourge. Many here carry a conscience about with them which makes us say, "How much better off they would be with none!" I declare, at times when I see the ravages which conscientiousness works in our New England stock, I wish these New Englanders had never heard moral distinctions mentioned. Better their vices than their virtues. The wise teacher will extirpate the first sproutings of the weed; for a weed more difficult to extirpate when grown there is not. We run a serious risk of implanting it in our children when we undertake their class instruction in ethics.

Such, then, are some of the considerations which should give us pause when the public is clamoring at our schoolhouse doors and saying to us teachers, "We cannot bring up our children so as to make them righteous citizens. Undertake the work for us. You have done so much already that we turn to you again, and entreat your help." I think we must sadly reply, "There are limits to what we can do. If you respect us, you will not urge us to do the thing that is not ours. By pressing into certain regions we shall bring upon you more disaster than benefit." -Palmer

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