The Consequences of Mindless Teaching
Whether the rash of post-Christmas violence at shopping malls nationwide, increasing incidents of air rage, or other acts of irrational behavior, our society appears to have become unhinged.
While I’m sure the causes and effects will be debated for years to come, I think the loss of simple words like “sin” and “blame” are behind the gradual drift towards an anything-goes outlook. It’s one that excuses personal misdeeds under the guise of tolerance or some other supposedly enlightened approach.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Some of my musings originate with New York Times syndicated columnist and Yale professor David Brooks’ insightful book, The Road to Character.
It ought to be required reading for college students and other young people raised to believe the world revolves around them.
Early in his response to the culture of the “Big Me,” Brooks talks about how we have gradually seen a shift over the last several decades from a culture of self-effacement to one of self-promotion.
One indicator of this subtle trend is how, of the 23 men and women who served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet, only one member published a memoir afterward.
Three decades later, 12 of the 30 members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet did—almost all of them self-advertising.
Nor is this restricted to presidential advisors. Brooks points to the Gallup Organization asking high school seniors in 1950 if they considered themselves to be a very important person. Only 12 percent said yes. But when Gallup posed the same question 55 years later, 80 percent answered in the affirmative.
Ironically, at a high school reunion around the same time, an old classmate who was teaching high school English commented to me about her students: “They can’t read, write or spell, but they have great self-esteem.”
This embrace of the Big Me has had serious consequences. Brooks traces how American society has spent so much time encouraging people to have a great career that we have been rendered inarticulate in cultivating an inner life.
The competition to succeed becomes all-consuming and encourages us to live by a utilitarian outlook aimed at satisfying our desires while losing sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions, he says.
“We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success,” Brooks writes, “but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”
The ultimate outcome of the extreme emphasis on professional skills while ignoring the depth of the inner life that fosters integrity: “You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces.”
Way to Sanity
One of the ways back to sanity that Brooks outlines is recovering the use of words like “sin,” which connote ideas of right and wrong, of correct and incorrect behavior.
As the evidence of irrational and boundary-less behavior grows stronger, we need more voices like Brooks’ crying out in the wilderness.
When we lived in Colorado three decades ago, a friend talked about the “values clarification” courses in high school that supposedly were teaching critical thinking, when at the heart of such classes lay the idea that there is no right or wrong.
Today, we see the outcome—millions acting as if there is no right or wrong. It is a dreadful consequence and we need to start counteracting it at the level that is most important: the grassroots.