Schools, the Moral Duty to be Intelligent and the Cancer of Relativism

by michael on August 5, 2015

While leapfrogging around the Internet a few weeks ago, probably in my incessant effort to avoid accomplishing anything, I found this essay: Restoring Our K–12 Schools by M. D. Aeschliman, published October 18, 2013. I read the article and was intrigued, intrigued enough to buy Leon Wieseltier’s anthology of Lionel Trilling’s essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. The first essay I read was George Orwell and the Politics of Truth. I chose that essay to read first because I make many references to Orwell, particularly his extraordinary essay, Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, in my presentations on ethics and rhetoric and persuasion, which I present primarily to law associations and to continuing legal education programs.   

Given the moral and rhetorical treatment of th topics dominating the news these days, from the infinitely important and infinitely suicidal so-called nuclear agreement with Iran (It is a neat rhetorical trick, and a moral perversion, is it not, to assert that one has reached an agreement with an entity that openly says it will not do what it agreed to do?) to the twisted morality of those who angrily denounce a dentist for killing an aging lion but are silent about the slaughter of live children by Planned Parenthood, given all that—a rather long sentence—I revisited Aeschliman’s essay to try to get better grounded in the moral and intellectual and philosophical tsunamis engulfing what is called the popular culture in the USA.

We have a popular culture drenched in moral relativism, the hyper worship of emotion over reason and a studied, focused, unceasing commitment to be totally ignorant. Not good, I suggest.

Here are the first two paragraphs of Aeschliman’s essay:

“One must never underestimate,” the great contemporary sociologist Peter L. Berger has written, “the human capacity for forgetfulness and imbecility.” In his most recent book, Berger ruefully notes that “relativism has massively invaded everyday life, especially in Western societies,” for complex reasons, not least of them the fact that “increasing numbers of people [are] going through an educational system in which teachers propagate relativistic ideas.”

We live in an age ignorant and resentful of theology and metaphysics, whose elites and academic establishment also hate the very idea of “classic” or “canonical” literature, from Dante to T. S. Eliot and Solzhenitsyn (both of whom unflatteringly document different kinds of modern inferno). As Lionel Trilling noted in 1961 in his fine essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (helpfully reprinted in Leon Wieseltier’s anthology of Trilling’s essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent), “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority.” As a distinguished “neo-conservative” adherent of Matthew Arnold’s view of the civilizing power of education and great literature to produce “ethical nobility,” Trilling also argued, regretfully and ominously, in the same essay, that “Nothing is more characteristic of modern literature,” especially since Nietzsche, “than its discovery and canonization of the primal, non-ethical energies.” The audio-visual power of New York and Hollywood has made this increasingly true and habituates us (and everyone else reached by airwaves and images) to violence and sensuality.

And then here’s this insightful paragraph:

Of the many regrettable anomalies unleashed and then institutionalized by John Dewey and his now-vast legion of followers in American K–12 schools and teachers’ colleges (and their worldwide disciples), two have been particularly damaging to the American Republic: first, the emptying out of specific, graduated, cumulative academic content in elementary schools and its replacement by helter-skelter play, experimentation, and uncoordinated, ephemeral “units,” and, second, the related replacement of high-school history with present-minded “social studies” and classic literature with contemporary fads (e.g., the International Baccalaureate’s recent elimination of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in favor of works such as the comic book/“graphic novel” Persepolis). “The effect of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curricular systems was devastating,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. “Progressive education” has proved to be the great enemy of real educational progress, bringing about an extraordinary “dumbing down” of the hapless and helpless students subjected to it. The profitable success and low quality of the commercial audio-visual and literary culture that preys on them is a sad commentary on the result.

And finally, this paragraph on the destruction of education by relativism and abandonment of standards:

Starting out as a garden-variety left-liberal while teaching at Yale, and a scholar and admirer of Romanticism, Hirsch has gradually but radically changed many of his views since moving to the University of Virginia (English Department, not education school) nearly 50 years ago. Despite great, international eminence as a literary theorist, in the Seventies he voluntarily took over the usually thankless task of running the undergraduate English Composition program at the increasingly competitive and eminent flagship of the Virginia university system, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, one of the nation’s best public universities. To his shock and distress, the promise of the Sixties civil-rights movement, with the admission of blacks (and poor whites) to the formerly elitist Virginia, had turned into disappointment. Many of the African-American students had been so badly educated in the K–12 schools of Virginia that they could not do university-level work and were in need of remediation, leading to an ironic and defensive re-segregation in Black Studies courses. Most of them (and many lower-class white students) did not have the common coin of the literate realm, the “cultural literacy,” as Hirsch called it, to take effective advantage of the newly available opportunities of access to elite institutions.


But is it true that history implicitly teaches ethics? Not, of course, if the historian is an anarchist or a Marxist, or some other form of determinist or fanatic. But the premises of rational generalizability–“What if everybody did that?”–and moral evaluation —this event, person, or idea is deficient, evil, or destructive (e.g., slavery, anti-Semitism, prostitution), that one good – are implicit in the conceiving, writing, and teaching of history. George Orwell’s eloquent, hard-won understanding of common “decency” as a standard is the effect and product of the long-term, residual momentum of the Natural Law tradition. It is incarnated in the history of Western law, classic writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, and Dickens, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, and the speeches of Lincoln, not to come nearer in time to the writings of C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, or Solzhenitsyn.

The durability, serviceability, and importance of these documents and institutions are unique and incalculably valuable, but – like all historical phenomena – vulnerable to forgetfulness and erosion. The theoretical and practical work of the educational pioneer E. D. Hirsch – blessed and graced with historical sense, literary skill, and civic commitment – serve the American (and human) “res publica,” justify the prudence and chaste hopes of the American Founders, and help redeem the time from anarchy and oblivion.

 We are living in perilous times. My own personal assessment is that the world, that it, humanity, will never—ever—recover if the fascist totalitarian forces sweeping the globe are allowed to win. Never again will there a collection of leaders that will even approximate the genius, the wit, the energy and the integrity of those like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, Martin Luther King and their rare ilk. Never again. There is something curiously troubling about democracies that they tend to commit suicide. People are easily manipulated, generally, but they are more easily manipulated when they are dumb. Thus, the moral duty to be intelligent; and its spin-off duties, the moral duty to be informed, the moral duty to make judgments and the moral duty to speak and persuade based on reason, ethics, honor and integrity.

More later


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