What to do about bad manners?
It will be hard to find agreement on moral education
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During our board-gaming days, when the kids were of school age and still enjoyed spending time with their parents, we invested a few dollars in a thrift-store copy of the board game Careers. Like The Game of Life (but less philosophical) and Monopoly (but less cutthroat), Careers was about life goals. Each player decided in advance what proportion of happiness, fame, or fortune—represented by hearts, stars, and dollar signs—constituted personal success. Side avenues on the board provided opportunities to collect the goods. A college degree, for example, raised one’s salary, while a stint in Hollywood racked up fame but sacrificed happiness.
A long piece in The Atlantic in September made me wonder what David Brooks would have added to the game. “How America Got Mean” presents a depressing view of a self-centered nation where “people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.” His evidence includes restaurant owners having to eject rude customers, nurses enduring abusive patients, rising gun sales, falling social trust.
From my small-town, semi-Southern perspective, it’s not that bad. But I take his point that education has drifted from moral formation based on an objective view of right and wrong. Pedagogy pursues the practical: training brains instead of hearts. The common denominator is personal “success,” measured in money and fame (i.e., recognition) producing happiness. Except it doesn’t, as the wisdom of the ages tells us. College grads may collect enough hearts, stars, and dollar signs to insulate themselves from despair, but that’s not an advantage shared by dropouts, ghetto kids, or the chronically unemployed or underpaid.
The answer, according to Brooks, is a return to moral education. We need a new, other-centered vision of character-building. We need to teach good manners, study the great teachers of the past, create “service sabbaticals” where retirees and post-college youth work together on worthy projects. We must put moral and practical goals on equal footing, because morality gives purpose to the good things, like hospitals and food banks, that material means make possible. Finally, we must make politics a “moral enterprise” rather than a power struggle.
Good luck with that last one, but at least one politician agrees. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., finds fault with his own party for neglecting, of all things, religion. “The Left Needs a Spiritual Renaissance. So Does America,” says the headline in a piece Murphy co-wrote for the Daily Beast with philosopher Ian Corbin. They cite Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Robert F. Kennedy as progressives who “embraced a mode of politics that was deeply rooted in explicit spirituality: the pursuit of something more than individual material reward.” What, exactly, is “spirituality”? “At its core, it is an attempt to ask and answer deep, fundamental questions about the world, the self, and society.”
I hear echoes of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s argument in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” Deep, fundamental questions indeed, that outsourced the right to define the mystery of human life to frightened teenage girls. The terrible reality of abortion could stand alone as one reason we may never agree on a moral education.
Brooks mentions Christianity once in his long piece, as a means to an end. Murphy references King’s Baptist roots and Kennedy’s Catholicism as examples of activist spirituality, and “of course, there’s no way to separate Gandhi’s liberation politics from his Hinduism.” But of course there is: Classical Hinduism has nothing to say about liberation. Judeo-Christianity is the foundation of any concept of human rights and equality, as even skeptics from Nietzsche to Jacques Derrida acknowledged.
The bigger problem is this: True religion is an end in itself, not merely a means. I’d like to see a revival of common courtesy, and it can certainly be taught. But without a purpose to life that transcends life, we’re just collecting hearts, stars, and dollar signs.
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