Putting Virtue First in Our Schools

The main problem facing our schools today is a lack of virtue. All of our other problems stem from it. Our educator’s attempts at school reform will fail unless character education and teaching the virtues is put at the top of the agenda. If students don’t learn about the virtues of self-discipline and respect for others, they will continue to exploit each other sexually no matter how many health clinics are opened or free condoms are handed out. If kids don’t understand the virtues of courage and justice, curriculums designed to improve their self-esteem and make them more sensitive to cultural diversity won’t stop the epidemic of extortion, hazing, bullying, disrespect, and violence in our schools.

Modern academic reform can succeed if we put “Virtue First”. Children need courage to tackle difficult assignments. They need self-discipline if they are going to devote their time to homework rather than video games and computer surfing. They need the diligence and perseverance required to do this day after day. If they don’t acquire intellectual virtues such as commitment to learning, objectivity, respect for the truth, and humility in the face of facts, they will never master the curriculum, no matter how “state of the art” it is.

If schools were to make the teaching of virtue a primary goal, many other things would fall into place. Problems that we currently view as unsolvable, such as violence, vandalism, drug use, teen pregnancies, unruly classrooms, and academic deterioration would start to become manageable. The moral reform of schools is not something that has to wait until other conditions are met. It doesn’t depend on the rest of society reforming itself. Schools are, or can be, one of the main engines of social change. They can set the tone of society in ways no other institution can match. Change the moral foundation of your schools, and you will soon see similar positive changes in your churches, business community, local government, your entire community.

The primary way to bring virtue, ethics and character back into our schools is to create a positive virtuous environment in the school. The ethos of a school, not its course offerings, is the decisive factor in forming virtue and character in its students. The first thing we must change is the moral climate of the school itself. What we seem to have forgotten in all our concern with individual development is that schools are social institutions. Their first function is to socialize. Many of our schools have forgotten how to do that.

Remember back to our decisive victory over Iraq in the Desert Storm campaign. If we can defeat the fourth-largest army in the world in a couple of weeks, why can’t we fix our schools? The argument usually given is that the kind of money that went into the war could do wonders if it went into schools. We’re not so sure. Part of that victory was due to the fact that we had more money and better technology. But there were other factors at work. The military had other things going for it besides money. In fact, the annual defense budget is far less than the amount of money spent annually on schools. Since the mid-fifties, school budgets have grown every year as a proportion of total tax revenues despite the fact of smaller school age populations in recent years. Some of the wealthiest school districts in America have serious problems with drugs, discipline, and teen pregnancy. Money is important, if you know how to use it, but it’s not the main thing.

What the military has that so many schools do not is an ethos of pride, loyalty, and discipline. It is called esprit de corps. The dictionary defines it as “a spirit of devotion and enthusiasm among members of a group for one another, their group, and its purposes.” That spirit has not always been high, but after the Vietnam War, a concerted effort was made to reshape the military ethos – apparently it worked. So much so that the armed forces actually outshine our schools in doing things the schools are supposed to do best, such as teaching math, science, technological skills, history, languages, geography, and map reading. Even in the matter of racial equality – something about which educators talk all the time – the military has shown far more success. In fact, the armed services are the most thoroughly integrated institutions in our society: promotions are on the basis of merit, black officers can dress down white soldiers, and there is a spirit of camaraderie and mutual respect among the races that extends well beyond tolerance. Schools, by contrast, are filled with racial tension, hostility, and self-segregation.

How does the military manage to create such a strong ethos?

First, by conveying a vision of high purpose: not only the defense of one’s own or other nations against unjust aggression, but also the provision of humanitarian relief and reconstruction in the wake of war or natural disaster (the classic case being the role played by the American military in rebuilding war-torn Europe and Japan).

Second, by creating a sense of pride and specialness (the Marines want only “a few good men”) – pride reinforced by a knowledge of unit tradition, by high expectations, and by rituals, ceremonies, dress codes, and behavior codes.

Third, by providing the kind of rigorous training – physical, mental, and technical – that results in real achievement and thus in real self-esteem.

Fourth, by being a hierarchical benevolent dictatorship, which believes in its mission and is unapologetic about its training programs.

Interestingly enough, these characteristics are also prevalent in most high school football programs. Is it any wonder why the Virtue First program is usually integrated by a schools football team before other segments of the school district and community?

Our schools can learn a lot from the Army. That certainly doesn’t mean they need to become military schools. But there are enough important similarities between the two institutions to suggest that there are lessons to be learned. Both work with the same “raw material”-young men and women-and both seek to give their recruits knowledge, skills, and habits they previously lacked.

When you build an ethos of virtue in a school, and once the student becomes engaged with the problem of what kind of person to be, and how to become that kind of person, the problems of ethics become concrete and practical and, for many a student, morality itself is thereafter looked on as a natural and even inescapable personal undertaking. One of the best ways to teach the virtues is in conjunction with history and literature. In that way, students can see that they are more than abstract concepts. In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, we see a remarkable combination of all four virtues in one man, Sir Thomas More. The plot of High Noon revolves around a tension among justice, courage, and prudence. To Kill a Mockingbird shows one kind of courage, The Old Man and the Sea another. Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice teach us about justice. Moby-Dick depicts a man who has lost all sense of prudence and proportion. In the character of Falstaff, we are treated to a comic depiction of intemperance; in the story of David and Bathsheba, we are shown a much harsher view of a man who yields to his desires.

A study of the virtues in conjunction with history and literature can lead to worthwhile classroom discussions. Such discussions about virtue are a far cry from post modern “Values Clarification” exercises based on nothing but a student’s feelings or uninformed opinions. In one case, students carry out their discussions within a framework of moral wisdom. In the other, there is no framework, and morality becomes a matter of “what I say” versus “what you say.” A knowledge of the virtues provides a standard by which opinions and feelings can be measured. A student who has begun to understand them can more accurately weigh moral arguments. He can begin to discriminate between values that change and virtues that don’t. He can learn the difference between values that are subjective (a preference for frozen yogurt over ice cream) and virtues that are objective (the obligation under justice to share food with someone who is hungry, the obligation under temperance not to gorge yourself to the point of throwing up).

Knowledge of the virtues also gives students a gauge for choosing their role models. Many young people confuse fame with heroism. They can begin to ask not only what the difference is between a hero and a celebrity but also what the difference is between someone who has physical courage (a sports hero) and someone who has both physical and moral courage (an Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Martin Luther King, Jr.). They will then be in a better position to decide which qualities of famous people are worth emulating, and which are not.

The children of America are in a state of crisis with weak moral foundations and all the evils that stem from it, drugs and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, internet porn, crime, violence, you name it. This crisis is not going to go away until schools once again make it their job to teach virtue both directly, through the curriculum, and indirectly, by creating a virtuous environment in the school. Schools courageous enough to put “Virtue First”, and reinstate and reinforce the concept and practice of the virtues will accomplish more toward building a healthy society than an army of doctors, counselors, and social workers.