The Consciences of Youth Also Require an Education

Terrence Moore

May 1, 2003

Education is a moral enterprise. Young people are put into moral situations constantly. "Should I tell my mother that I broke her favorite vase or pretend like nothing happened?" "Should I copy the answers of the person sitting next to me?" "Should I smoke the cigarette and drink the beer my friend just gave me?" "Should my boyfriend and I have sex since we love each other?" These are the timeless moral questions youth face today and have always faced. Anyone who thinks they are new should read the Confessions of St. Augustine. This patriarch of the church stole apples as a child and as a teenager impregnated a woman to whom he was not married. His knowledge of sin came from his own inner struggle. Schools can approach the moral lives of children and youth in three ways. They can try to ignore moral issues altogether. They can open up moral questions for students to explore in a non-judgmental and noncommittal environment. Or they can teach classical views of self-command using traditional teaching methods.

The first approach is simply impossible. All schools must maintain an atmosphere of order and decorum for learning to take place. Schools that claim to ignore the character of their students either end up with major discipline problems or teach some forms of character without claiming to do so. As soon as you say "this is right" and "this is wrong" you are teaching character. When you fail to say something is wrong, you are unwittingly permitting it. Unfortunately, most schools today let students get by with things that in the past were not tolerated, not only talking in class and passing notes, but also talking back to teachers in the most surly and disrespectful manner. It is no wonder that far-sighted people are worried about the increasing incivility in this nation.

The second approach might seem the most worthy of reasonable people. "Let us talk about morality in a non-judgmental way and let students come up with their own answers," say the advocates of moral reasoning and values clarification. They even make moral discussion a part of the curriculum. What happens in these discussions is that teachers open up pre-marital sex, drug use, and other illicit activities as plausible life choices so long as students can explain those choices in terms of "their own values." Predictably, research has indicated that students who are exposed to open-ended discussions of moral issues are far more likely to engage in vice. Readers who are interested in seeing how values clarification has unraveled the moral fabric of this country should read William Kilpatrick’s Why Johnny Cant Tell Right from Wrong.

In contrast to the first two approaches, a classical education teaches the classical virtues using traditional methods. Public schools and publicly funded charter schools have to leave religious questions entirely up to the students and their parents. But even public schools can agree with Aristotle’s dictum that one becomes virtuous by practicing the virtues. (The classical virtues are, by the way, courage, justice, temperance, and prudence. How many students today can even define these words?)

The classical view of human nature holds that every young person has a conscience. It may be a conscience embattled against the individual’s own passions and the allurements of the culture, but it is a conscience nonetheless. Like the capacities of the mind, the conscience must be educated or it will lapse into lethargy. To exercise the consciences of youth, schools must have very firm rules. They must insist that students always be attentive and polite. When students learn about virtue, they should not be presented with moral conundrums that seemingly have no right or wrong answers. Instead, they should confront the great stories of self-command and self-sacrifice found in literature and history. These narratives show that actions have consequences, and that there is a clear difference between right and wrong. They also lead young people to emulate the moral virtues of heroes and heroines. The history of classical education is quite simply a history of the conjunction of learning and morality. The Roman teacher of rhetoric Quintilian made the connection explicit:

My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such a one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but all the excellences of character as well.
Twenty-first century Americans should expect no less of their students.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.