Moral Order is a Story and Not a Legal Code
About ten years ago, I read a book which frightened me a bit: Jane Healy’s “Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think”. Professor Healy, who was a junior-high school teacher as well as a college professor, spoke about the dangers of our ways of life, based upon teaching experience — her own and that of others, based also upon her readings in neurosciences and interviews with developmental specialists in that field. She tells a story which perhaps reaches a climax in her printing of pages from national achievement tests for elementary students, two tests about 20 years apart — mid-1960s and early 1980s from my memory. In the earlier test, students were expected to draw conclusions, largely from contextual clues, about Vincent van Gogh’s philosophy of art, about the relationship between the color of a star and its surface temperature. In the later test, students were expected to order food from the menu of a ‘prehistoric’ fast-food restaurant. Dino-burgers or whatever.
She spoke of ill-behaved students, illiterate in a deeper sense, and difficult to the point of impossible to educate. Professor Healy discussed the usual causes. Modern children watch television or play little-league baseball under adult supervision rather than engaging in imaginative free-play or heading out to organize their own games of capture-the-flag or pick-up baseball. They listen to pre-recorded music instead of singing along as Mom or Aunt Millie plays the piano. Education has too much visual glitz of the sort which distracts the attention, activating visual systems in the brain and shutting down the regions of higher thought. This problem is aggravated by fast action, such as you find in “Sesame Street” and other so-called educational shows.
There are other problems but one that interests me here is the lack of a context for the lives of these children. Professor Healy spoke, in the early 1990s, of children who knew all about the characters of the television show “Roseanne” but didn’t even know what country their grandparents came from; nor did they know a bit of the history of their own community. In fact, modern children inhabit an alien region described by stories about sophisticated cannibals and robot-men and drug-addicts rather than a world shaped by stories of family and local community and religious tradition. I admit that some families, even during the best of times, will have drug-addicts and alcoholics. Those sad stories have to be folded into the honest stories which we adults use to shape our moral lives and to view God’s world, but children don’t need to hear about either psychiatrist-cannibals or Uncle Tom who drank himself to death at 40. It’s impossible to protect them from all rumors, and perhaps undesirable, but children don’t need to know the details of those sorts of adult problems.
The do need to know about Grandpa coming over from Poland, not knowing a word of English. But he picked up a shovel and went to work as a common laborer and ended up owning a paving company. They need to hear about the heroic struggles of the Polish people to preserve their identity though they inhabited a defenseless plain. They should hear about Great-uncle Stan dying at Guadalcanal or Dad taking a bullet during the Tet Offensive. They should learn of George Washington and Nathaniel Greene, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, FDR and George Patton. Most of all, Catholic children should learn about Jesus Christ and St. Paul and St. Faustina and Pope John Paul II. Protestant Christians or Unitarians or Jews or others can supply their own list.
I’ve made it clear in various writings that I’m not a big believer in the understanding modern human beings have of recent histories nor am I a fan of Lincoln or FDR. Yet, children should receive the idealistic version of history before they learn the harsh realities. Why would we think those children would be able to eventually understand failure to meet moral standards if they’d not first been taught those standards in terms of stories? We have to be careful, of course, and not to overdo matters. The deification of Lincoln has likely caused as much moral decay as Hollywood has caused in recent years.
When I was growing up, my beliefs of the world were formed by a reading of a large collection of idealistic biographies of great Americans written for children in fourth-grade through sixth-grade. Short and usually consisting of one story from the childhood of those men and women, they gave a flavor for nobility of character even if it was sometimes more in the imagination of the writers of that series. I can remember reading of the young Thomas Jefferson taking slabs of bread and ham to an escaped slave hiding in a nearby cave. Israel Putnam had a great time sledding during a Connecticut winter. Dolly Madison risked her life to save the contents of the White House as the British soldiers were approaching with the intent of burning it to the ground.
I moved on to read somewhat more complete and more realistic biographies and histories as well. There was a great feast in the Hubbard Memorial Library waiting for a hungry mind and soul. There were novels about the Colonial Era in North America, about mountain-men and great explorers. There were histories of Amerind nations and of the westward expansion of the European immigrants. There were stories of war and disease. Some of that was disturbing to an unguided youth first confronting the realities of human nature but it was exhilarating in its own way, and I would later learn that most of those mainstream works were still whitewashed versions of history as nasty as they first seemed to a young lad who’d been properly raised on an idealistic view of history.
I was in somewhat better shape, intellectually, than most children in more recent years but I was morally ill-formed, or perhaps softly formed. There were some fragments of stories in which my life, my story, was embedded, but there was no overall story to make sense of things. Not only was there no strong story of Christian salvation through the Blood of the Cross, there was not even the sort of family or community story which helped virtuous pagans, such as the Romans or the Apache, to form their children into strong and noble men and women.
Systematic discussions of morality or ethics are important in an advanced society but they are meaningful only if they build upon deeply-held stories which give meaning to the life of the individual and to the life of his communities. Book-knowledge isn’t enough, especially when it isn’t a part of the child’s blood and flesh, and that includes both inheritance and experience. But book-knowledge provides a background and a context for Grandpa’s heroic life. All of this should come together in communities of human beings who share stories and live according to those stories as best as they can.
The overall structure of our moral lives is formed by the stories we accept, that we tell ourselves, that we live as individuals and as members of communities. All of the pieces have to be in place, that is — we must have individual stories which make sense in the light of our communal stories. But the process is recursive and those communal stories make sense of the individual stories which are our lives and the lives of those we love and even those difficult-to-love human beings which may be us.Explore posts in the same categories: Education, Modern culture, Moral Formation, Moral issues