Moral Education and History
JULY 01, 1968 by FREDERICK MANCHESTER
Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin
A prominent Protestant churchman, the Rev. Dr. Norman has recently been quoted as saying that "We are living in probably the most undisciplined age in history."¹ Well, if this age is indeed liable to so serious a charge, it should be of interest to know whether the past owed its differing condition to accident or whether this may have been related to specific measures which it has taken. What, in this connection, have other ages done? I suggest that we direct our attention to a few examples of past practice.
First, what about primitive cultures? At adolescence boys are given "moral instruction, including tribal usage relating to obedience, courage, truth, hospitality, sexual relationships, reticence, and perseverance."2 — "Sometimes long periods of silence are imposed upon novices in connection with the puberal ceremonies of most primitive peoples…. Australian boys go alone into the bush, and are required to maintain silence for long periods. African lads are required to remain silent and immobile for long periods. Such practices test a boy’s obedience and self-control, and render teachings associated with them especially impressive."3
In Ancient Egypt
As to education in ancient Egypt, we are told that morals were its "central feature…. Civilization demanded the evolution and enrichment of moral life. To this end the Egyptians sought to train and instruct their young in the art of virtuous living. Their method of moral cultivation was a great advance beyond the simple training of primitive society, and yet it was similar in character. Their chief writings were a series of moral aphorisms and incidents, the distilled experience and wisdom of the fathers, set down for the instruction of their sons. The boys learned this wisdom by copying the ‘wisdom literature’ again and again as their daily lessons. It was literally ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’; but these were learned by writing and not by memorizing them. — The sage old vizier, Ptah-hotep, in the twenty-seventh century B. C., wrote, ‘Precious to a man is the virtue of his son, and good character is a thing remembered.’ This is said to be the first recorded use of the word character in literature. Some five centuries later in the Instructions written for King Merikere, his father, who was the Pharaoh, referred to ‘God, who knoweth character.’ The Egyptian use of the word character signified ‘to shape, to form, or to build.’ It had in view especially the work of the potter, in molding clay on his wheel…. The literature of remote antiquity had a distinct pedagogical purpose. The first and deepest of all human interests, or, one might say, the first of all sciences, was the knowledge of how to live. Not how to secure food, but how to live with, and act toward, one’s fellows, that is, to live in human relations."4
Of Hebrew education it has been said that it "is unlike any other whatsoever in that it made God the beginning. It began, therefore, by teaching the child the most general and universal, and not the particular. It began with the social, and not the individual; with the personal and ethical, and not with things. It began with the abstract and unseen, and not with the seen and the concrete; with obedience to law and reverence for God, and not in the acquisition of the arts of reading and writing. Truth was deduced from this divine, original principle, and not learned by induction. Jewish education was spiritual, and therefore it stood in direct contradiction to the empirical and naturalistic systems of other peoples. The fact that it has outlasted every other system whatsoever makes it the most successful educational experiment ever staged in the history of civilization."5
The Culture of India
In ancient India, a boy belonging to any one of the three upper of the four castes had to live with his parents until he had been invested with the holy thread and initiated into the sacred Gayatri-Mantra. "But as soon as he got his initiation, at the age of eight or ten, he had to leave his father’s house and go to the house of his would-be teacher and live with him until he was twenty-five, when he would have become master of all the branches of learning. The life spent in the professor’s house is called the life of Brahmacharya. This was exactly the opposite of what we call a comfortable and luxurious life. However rich his parents might be, a new student would be treated equally with his compeers."—"The celibate students of the classical days were trained to be hardy and robust and were not only learned in the lore of the day but were also sober and thoughtful. Brought up in the self-renouncing atmosphere of the preceptor’s family, they were able to discharge the duties of the householder’s life (their life in their second twenty-five years) with strong other-regarding tendencies and with their passions and appetites subdued or moderated. Devotion to duty and spiritual exercises practised long in the preceptor’s family made them loving, friendly, broad-minded, truthful and happy."6
And of Greece
Of education in ancient Greece, we can catch a glimpse in the following sentences from the Protagoras of Plato (Jowett’s translation): "Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are quarreling about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand them: he can not say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honorable, that is dishonorable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that. And if he obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows, like a piece of warped wood. At a later stage they send him to teachers, and enjoin them to see to his manners even more than to his reading and music; and the teachers do as they are desired. And when the boy has learned his letters and is beginning to understand what is written, as before he understood only what was spoken, they put into his hands the works of great poets, which he reads at school; in these are contained many admonitions, and many tales, and praises, and encomia of ancient famous men, which he is required to learn by heart, in order that he may imitate or emulate them and desire to become like them. Then, again, the teachers of the lyre take similar care that their young disciple is temperate and gets into no mischief; and when they have taught him the use of the lyre, they introduce him to the poems of other excellent poets, who are the lyric poets; and these they set to music, and make their harmonies and rhythms quite familiar to the children, in order that they may learn to be more gentle, and harmonious, and rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm."
The Wisdom of the Chinese
In ancient China, we are told, "The most important thing [in respect to 'rightness of relationship'], which all children were taught, was the relation between themselves and other people. There were Five Relationships (just as there were Five Virtues [kindness, good manners, knowledge, uprightness, and honor]) to which every man must be true. These were the relation between parent and child, between husband and wife, between ruler and subject, between older brother and younger brother and between friend and friend. If everyone were true to these five, then truly there would be no unhappiness in the world. If friends are faithful and helpful to each other; if the elder brother protects and guides the younger, and if the younger brother respects and obeys the elder; if the subject is loyal to his ruler and the ruler’s first thought is to care for his people; if wife and husband live together in perfect harmony…; if the child honors and serves his parents and the parents cherish their child, where is there any room for evil doing? These five loyalties were to the Chinese what the Ten Commandments were to the Jews and the last one was the most important. For if the son truly honors his parents, he will do nothing wrong, since that would bring sorrow and shame upon them, but he will always do his best, in order to give them pride and joy in him. This commandment has held the Chinese people together from Yao’s time [Yao was an ancient, legendary king] until this present century, and has had much to do with the amazingly long life of their nation."7
The details given are of great interest, but the unique and perhaps the most striking fact about education in China is — or rather has been until very recently — its relation to the government. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was, as everyone knows, the teacher par excellence of his nation, the revered transmitter of the moral wisdom of his people accumulated through untold centuries. As early as the reign of Wu Ti (140-87 B.C.) examinations based on Confucian classics were employed as the means of selecting state officials, and subsequently this system has been characteristic of China — at least from and including the Tang Dynasty — until the twentieth century. One of the Confucian classics is the Analects. This book, then, among others, was the object of the closest possible study by youth aspiring to a post in the government. If, therefore, we wish to know the sort of ethics that inevitably came to their attention, we have only to turn to its pages. From it I quote a number of passages: all of them are (or contain) sayings of Confucius:
"A virtuous ruler is like the Pole-star, which keeps its place, while all the other stars do homage to it." — "If a man can reform his own heart, what should hinder him from taking part in government? But if he cannot reform his own heart, what has he to do with reforming others?" — "At home, a young man should show the qualities of a son; abroad, those of a younger brother. He should be circumspect but truthful. He should have charity in his heart for all men, but associate only with the virtuous. After thus regulating his conduct, his surplus energy should be devoted to literary culture." — "The princely man never for a single instant quits the path of virtue; in times of storm and stress he remains in it as fast as ever." — "The nobler sort of man is proficient in the knowledge of his duty; the inferior man is proficient only in money-making." —"The subdual of self, and reversion to the natural laws governing conduct — this is true goodness. If a man can for the space of one day subdue his selfishness and revert to natural laws, the whole world will call him good. True goodness springs from a man’s own heart." —"Make conscientiousness and truth guiding principles, and thus pass on to the cultivation of duty to your neighbor. This is exalted virtue."— [Confucius, being asked, "Is there any one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout one's whole life?"] "Surely the maxim of charity is such: — Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you." —"With coarse food to eat, water to drink, and the bended arm as a pillow, happiness may still exist. Wealth and rank unrighteously obtained seem to me as insubstantial as floating clouds."8
Mexico Before the Spanish
From the Old World I now turn for a moment to the New, specifically to Mexico, and to this at a comparatively early period. We are told that here, at the time of the Spanish conquest:
"From a very early age the training of the child was very strict…. With such strict training it is not strange that the Spaniards were astonished at the high moral tone of the natives, and their reluctance to tell a lie. Unfortunately contact between the two civilizations soon led to a rapid moral degeneration of the native code.
"Boys of what might be termed the middle class… were handed over to special priests for education at about the age of six, or even earlier. They were lodged in special boys’ houses in an organization which might be compared to a modern boarding school, save that the discipline in the Mexican schools was much stricter…. Education included a very strict moral training…
"Another college existed for the education of the sons of the nobility…. Here the education was even stricter, and the discipline more rigid…. During the whole period of the training, which varied from about six to eight years, the boys were under a very strict supervision. They slept in the college building, and, apparently, seldom saw their parents….
"Girls of the nobility and middle classes were prepared for married life by instruction in girls’ schools patterned after those of the boys. They entered these at about the age of five… Discipline, as among the boys, was very strict, and long periods of silence were imposed upon them. They were never allowed to leave the college precincts unless accompanied by an old woman, who served as chaperon. This rule was not relaxed even when exercising in the school gardens. Should they meet anyone not connected with the school, they were forbidden to speak or even raise their eyes from the ground. — Punishment for infractions of these rules was severe…. Even daughters of the rulers were subjected to the same discipline."
Early American Methods and the Christian Influence
I come now, very briefly, to the post-classical period in the Occident — with special reference to America. "In the progress of western education," it has been said, "Christianity has been the supreme influence. It is impossible to understand the institutions and culture of occidental civilization during the past two thousand years without this new ethical force."¹º… "Our earliest American Colleges were founded on the model of those of British universities: and here, as there, their avowed design, at the time of their foundation, was not merely to raise up a class of learned men, but specifically to raise up a class of learned men for the Christian Ministry…. This was the system which time had honored at Oxford and Cambridge, and which time continued to honor on this continent, with very slight modifications, down nearly to the close of the eighteenth century."11 "The old education," said Irving Babbitt in 1924, referring to the early American college, "was, in intention at least, a training for wisdom and character."¹²
So much for our American colleges; now the schools. "The most prominent characteristic of all the early colonial schooling was the predominance of the religious purpose in instruction. One learned to read chiefly to be able to read the Catechism and the Bible, and to know the will of the Heavenly Father. There was scarcely any other purpose in the maintenance of elementary schools."¹³ Of Horace Mann (1796-1859) it has been said: "His twelve carefully written Reports on the condition of education in Massachusetts and elsewhere, with his intelligent discussion of the aims and purposes of public education, occupy a commanding place in the history of American education, while he will always be regarded as perhaps the greatest of the ‘founders’ of our American system of free public schools. No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, nonsectarian, and free, and that its aim should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends."" From this last quotation it appears that though Mann was an outstanding agent in the transforming of American popular education he meant to preserve ethical values among its aims. Again we encounter the crucial word character.
What, then, if anything, to return to our starting point, have past ages done to bring about, or to maintain, a disciplined society? To judge from the examples I have adduced, two things are obvious. One is, emphatically, that they have done something. They have not been passive. They have not been "permissive" — if by being permissive we mean allowing youth to grow up in uninhibited responsiveness to their native impulses and desires. The other thing is that they have subjected their children to a process, definite and in some cases severe, of moral education. In short, they would appear to have shared in no small degree the view I have seen curtly expressed, more or less facetiously no doubt, to the effect that each new generation is a fresh invasion of barbarians. They have developed systems of training all unquestionably aimed, whatever their specific nature, at producing disciplined men and women, and if the societies they have created have all been, as Dr. Peale would appear to think probable, more disciplined than ours, the inference is plain.
What Can We Do?
And we in mid-twentieth century America, what, if anything, are we doing to civilize our incoming barbarians?
By what is perhaps universal belief, the most effective agency for moral training is the home. What of the home in contemporary America? According to Dr. Peale, it lacks discipline, morality, spirituality, and even love. "Two generations of parents who abandoned the old American home quality of discipline have caused our universities to inherit neuroses, neglect, permissiveness, creating a student generation that thinks it can get what it yells for, even student power or control of the universities themselves."¹5 Whether or not completely subscribing to these views, probably most observers who reflect on the subject would agree that the American home, partly because of the increasing break-up of the family and consequent loosening of its ties, is functioning most inadequately as a moralizing force. Another potential moralizing force, once no doubt secondary in importance only to the home, is the organized church. Here my own testimony must be mainly inference and surmise, but it would seem to me inevitable that with the widespread shift of emphasis in religion from its former task of purifying and elevating the individual soul to concern with social amelioration and the forwarding of humanitarian causes, its effect upon traditionally basic morals would be greatly diminished; and I am unaware of contradictory evidence. Still another potentially major force for right conduct, a force vigorously operative, as we have seen, in colonial times, and no doubt still more or less operative at least as late as a century ago, is formal education — the schools and the colleges. What has become of that force today? My own impression is that apart from religious schools and colleges it is virtually nonexistent.
The emerging contrast between what we are doing in America today in the way of moral education (or rather what we are not doing), and what, if the examples I have adduced may be considered reasonably representative, past ages have done, is tremendous —even, perhaps some will feel, startling. What in the way of positive action on our part does the contrast suggest as desirable — even mandatory?
The Answer Comes Clear
The answer to this vital question is luminously clear — even, one might almost contend, logically inescapable — provided the following propositions are true: (1) that what purports to be history and what we read as such is substantially authentic; (2) that my examples are in fact substantially representative; (3) that human nature, within the limits of recorded history, has not significantly changed; and (4) that we in America today are seriously dissatisfied with the moral condition of our culture.
As to the first of these propositions there has been scepticism. One recalls the comment — how seriously made I do not know —that history is a lie agreed upon: un mensonge convene; and an outstanding American industrialist has been quoted as saying, comprehensively, that "history is bunk." Such scepticism, serious or otherwise, can, I think, be summarily dismissed.
Of the truth of the second proposition — that my examples are in fact substantially representative — I leave the reader to judge. The third proposition — that human nature has not significantly changed since history was first written — is probably accepted by most people, though I dare say there are some, dazzled by the marvels of modern science and technology, who are firmly convinced that the world has lately begun anew and that mankind has been more or less transformed. It would not much surprise me to hear of a new book, amply supported by laboratory statistics, entitled Human Nature Today. In a recent number of Reader’s Digest (February, 1968) I see Eric Hoffer quoted as observing: "The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves…. It is not love of self but hatred of self which is at the root of the troubles that afflict the world" — and all this despite the fact that genuine religion everywhere has as a main objective the subdual and destruction of the ego! In the passage cited from Mr. Hoffer he does not remark that he thinks human nature has changed, and if he does not think it has done so for, say, two thousand years, he is attributing to the Founder of Christianity an exercise in superfluity that is truly gigantic. The second commandment, said Jesus to the tempting Pharisee, is like unto the first: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
There can perhaps be no plainer proof of the impotence of current criticism than the willingness of an author to expose himself to ridicule by an assertion diametrically opposed, beyond all question, to the moral experience of mankind.
Of the truth of the fourth proposition — that we in America today are seriously dissatisfied with the moral condition of our culture — I leave the reader to judge.
To what, then, if all these propositions may be accepted as corresponding with the facts, does the argument plainly lead? It leads to the conclusion that an imperative requirement of our time is an all-out drive toward intensifying the moralizing activities of the home, the church, and all other relevant social agencies, and the establishment, at all levels, of a definite plan of moral education, wherever it does not now exist, in our educational institutions. To ignore this requirement, in view of the world outlook of the moment, and especially of the consequent urgent demand for political and other leaders trained, not merely technically, but pre-eminently for wisdom and character, might seem to reasonably prudent minds to verge on madness.
1 U. S. News & World Report, March 4, 1968.
2 W. D. Humbly, Origins of Education Among Primitive Peoples, 1926, cited in The History and Philosophy of Education Ancient and Medieval, by Frederick Eby and Charles Flinn Arrowood, 1940, p. 15.
3 Eby and Arrowood, op. cit., p. 17.
4 Ibid., pp. 87f.
5 Ibid., p. 157.
6 The two quoted passages are from For Thinkers on Education (Mylapore, Madras, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1948)—the first, here slightly edited, from Book One. p. 3; the second from the anonymous Introduction. p. xi.
7 Elizabeth Seeger, The Pageant of Chinese History, 1962, p. 45.
8 From The Sayings of Confucius, by Lionel Giles.
9 J. Eric Thompson, Mexico Before Cortez (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 19331, Chapter II: "The Cycle of Life." Omissions from the quoted passages include details of harsh disciplinary punishments.
10 Eby and Arrowood, op cit., p. 578.
11 F. A. P. Barnard, 1872, as cited in Public Education in the United States, by Ellwood P. Cubberley, 1947 edition, pp. 33f.
12 Democracy and Leadership, p. 303.
13 Ellwood P. Cubberley, op. cit., p. 41.
14 Ibid., p. 226.
15 For source, see footnote 1 above.